Dr No by Percival Everett review – serious comedy

<span>Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

“I recall that I am extremely forgetful,” announces the narrator of Percival Everett’s Dr No in the novel’s opening lines. “I believe I am. I think I know that I am forgetful. Though I remember having forgotten, I cannot recall what it was that I forgot or what forgetting feels like.” No sooner has the reader crossed the threshold of the narrative than it begins to reveal itself as a labyrinth of mirrors, an elaborate and joyously rickety construction of philosophical gags and structural paradoxes. The novel, Everett’s 23rd, follows last year’s Booker shortlisting of 2021’s The Trees and is a kind of metaphysical caper. The narrator, Wala Kitu, is a professor of mathematics at Brown University, whose area of expertise is nothing. Which is to say that his entire academic career has been devoted to the study and explication of complete absence. Even his name means nothing: Wala is Tagalog for “nothing”, while Kitu is Swahili for the same thing – or non-thing. (His real name, he reveals early on, is Ralph Townsend – an admission that will lead readers familiar with Everett’s earlier work to recognise the now thirtysomething mathematician as the ingenious polymathic toddler at the centre of the 1999 post-structuralist satire Glyph.)

It’s hard to think of any American fiction writer since Thomas Pynchon who is as committed to excavating a novel’s themes through cerebral jokes. Everett derives near-infinite eggheaded wordplay from the linguistic absurdity of nothing as a subject. “I just received a grant that I hope leads to nothing,” Kitu tells a fellow professor at one point; elsewhere, contemplating his failure, despite years of study, to capture the white whale of nothingness, he says: “I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it.”

It is Kitu’s strange area of mathematical interest that draws him into the orbit of John Sill, a billionaire with the explicit desire to become a Bond villain. Sill’s Goldfinger-ish plan is to break into Fort Knox and steal a shoebox containing a small quantity of nothing he believes to be sealed in a vault therein. He offers Kitu $3m to act as a sort of consultant to his dastardly project.

Everett has the ability to balance wild comic sensibilities with an unmistakable seriousness of purpose

Sill intends to use this quantity of nothing as a weapon of mass nullification, to reduce America itself to nought – not to destroy it, as such, but to cause it to never have existed. Sill, whom Kitu describes as “slightly racially ambiguous”, reveals a villain origin story that is deeply embedded in his country’s racial wounds: his father was an innocent collateral victim of the plot to assassinate Martin Luther King and, years later, his mother was killed by police. As Sill puts it to James Earl Ray, the man who shot MLK, when he visits him in prison, “I won’t take your life. That doesn’t have much value. I’m going to take your world.”

But this rationale for his villainy is, like everything else in Everett’s novel, gleefully subverted. At one point, Sill is asked whether it bothers him that his plan to zap the country will also wipe out an awful lot of his fellow Black Americans. “Sacrifices must be made,” he says. “If there’s one thing all this money has made me, it’s White.”

One of Everett’s many gifts as a novelist is his ability to balance his wild comic sensibilities with an unmistakable seriousness of purpose. In his 2001 novel Erasure, an Everett-esque author, under relentless pressure to conform to the publishing industry’s expectations of Black writing, dashes off a novel called My Pafology. The book is an absurd satire of those culturally reductive expectations; it is taken at face value and becomes a publishing phenomenon. My Pafology, the entire text of which is included in Erasure, is both savagely funny and embedded in a complex and sophisticated commentary on the idea of a “Black literature”. The Trees mined, by means of crime fiction, a dark thematic seam of racism and revenge. Dr No returns to these themes, but its approach is more determinedly antic.

Everett’s commitment is absolute; the plot proceeds by way of a funhouse gauntlet of spy-thriller cliches, with Kitu, having turned against his former supervillain boss, acting as a kind of anti-Bond – a mathematician “on the spectrum” who has no interest in sex, and who spends quite a lot of the novel standing guard valiantly over his own virginity. There are sexy female bodyguards. There are shark-infested pools, in which people are dispatched by way of trapdoors. There are submarines, vast compounds in remote locations, a constant succession of plot reversals occasioned by people pulling guns on each other.

It’s all a great deal of fun, and Everett gets a lot of comic mileage out of his narrator’s affectless reactions to the increasingly absurd situations he finds himself in. At one point, as he hangs by his fingertips from an eighth-floor balcony, Kitu pauses to consider the mechanics of narrative tension: “The suspense here is strange, as of course one would know that I did not fall to my death, though I suppose it is possible that I could have survived to write this from my wheelchair.”

With its relentless philosophical jokiness and its joyfully involuted narrative, Dr No feels lighter and brisker than much of this lavishly prolific and talented writer’s other work. But even when he seems to be writing about nothing, Everett is always up to something interesting.

Dr No by Percival Everett is published by Influx (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.