As the old adage goes, someone can be a “jack of all trades, master of none.” But can someone be a master of nothing?
In this instance, author Percival Everett’s genre-bending novel, Dr. No, showcases Wala Kitu as an expert. And his area of study is … nothing.
A math professor, Kitu partners with aspiring villain John Sill, who wants to break into Fort Knox to steal a shoe box containing … nothing.
Once Sill controls … nothing, he has a plan to turn a Massachusetts town into … nothing. But, a double agent partnership with brainwashed astrophysicist-turned-henchwoman, Eigen Vector, leads Kitu to try and ruin Sill’s plans.
Everett, who is the recipient of a 2023 Windham Campbell Prize for fiction, is a prolific author and distinguished professor of English at the University of South Carolina.
He will bring his most recent novel to life with his Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle presentation at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
“(Dr. No) is such a game, but it’s very serious,” said Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts. “His writing is absurd. It’s nonsense. But behind the nonsense, there’s meaning.”
Dr. No was named a finalist for the 2023 National Book Critics award for fiction, and received the PEN America Literary award earlier this year. “This is such a strange and brilliant book,” the judges said. “Nothing like it has existed for a long, lovng time.”
After the recognition for the award, Everett told PEN America that the Dr. No is “a tasteless thing to do, but I have written too many books.”
Everett has published more than 20 novels, six collections of poetry, and four short story collections. His 2021 book, The Trees, was the winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.
In 2020, his novel Telephone created buzz as the author and his publisher, Graywolf Press, released three versions of the book, with three different endings. It was a finalist the next year for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
Dr. No borrows its title from the 1958 Ian Fleming story adapted into film, yet Everett told The Washington Post the book “has nothing to do with anything (James) Bond.”
Everett’s tone, described as “puckish” in almost every review, permeates the entirety of the novel.
For example, Kitu as a character is even made up of nothing. His first and last names translate to “nothing” in Tagalog and Swahili, respectively. His parents named him such because they were mathematicians who believed two negatives make a positive.
Ton-Aime said Dr. No is the “best selection” for the CLSC in Week Two and the Chautauqua Lecture Series theme, “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastimes,” due to its playful and satirical nature.
“Behind all that nothing, we will realize and we see it as play,” Ton-Aime said. “We see it as nonsense. But while reading the book, we are questioning ourselves and we’re questioning the story.”