A parody of 007 movies, Percival Everett’s novel Dr. No announces itself as a highly referential screwball comedy straightaway. The narrator tells us that his name is Wala Kitu. “Wala” means “nothing” in Tagalog, and “Kitu” also means “nothing,” but in Swahili. The name, then, appears to be “nothing-nothing”—a mock double zero, or negative of a negative. Yet as he’s wont to do, Everett quickly upends these assumptions when he reveals that the narrator’s real name is Ralph Townsend. He’s a Black mathematics professor, a later-day version of the kidnapped genius-baby who narrates Everett’s 1999 novel, Glyph.
Because of his mathematical expertise in “nothing,” Kitu is engaged by the billionaire John Milton Bradley Sill, a self-styled Bond wannabe. Sill’s ambition is to break past the legendary gold-guardian security and steal a shoebox of nothing from Fort Knox. And yet even this is complicated. He became a villain, after all, not for villainy’s sake but rather for revenge. His father was killed by a fictionalized version of James Earl Ray, who was convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. A white chief of police killed his mother. In a prison scene that echoes the 1997 confrontation of Ray by King’s son Dexter—the family has said they believe Ray was part of a conspiracy—Sill questions the fictional shooter about his father’s murder. “I won’t take your life,” he concludes. “That doesn’t have much value. I’m going to take your world.”
Such revenge is, in some sense, empty, but also deadly serious: Sill means to stand against a white supremacist society. Because he likes to surround himself with people smarter than he is, he cajoles Kitu into an ongoing consultation. “When I open the vault,” he asks, “and I will, how will I know that nothing is there? It’s a big vault. If it is full of nothing, then how will I move it? How does one transport such a thing? Does it need to be refrigerated at minus 273 degrees Celsius?”
The premise suggests a kind of inverted version of Goldfinger—an allusion heightened by the shared use of the name Auric.
Kitu agrees to help, but shady agents—one named Bill Clinton—from a top-secret government agency show up to thicken the plot. In a further wrinkle, Kitu falls for a female colleague who has become Sill’s girlfriend. She’s named Eigen Vector, for the complex linear algebraic concept, and she might be on the spectrum, as is Kitu.
Hijinks ensue, marked by 1960s-era Bond signifiers: a woman’s naked feet, a female pilot with an Afro, a speedy elevator, a submarine. Kitu has deadpan conversations about the philosophy of nothingness with his one-legged bulldog, Trigo, and the animal, sometimes from his BabyBjorn, talks back. While Kitu and Vector hope to foil Sill, the untrustworthiness of everyone involved with the plot leads to a kind of meta-commentary that reads like a set of existential reflections on the unreliability of all surfaces. “Not only could I not articulate the problem or represent it symbolically,” Kitu muses, “but I could not even be certain that the problem was real and significant.”
We’ve come to think of the early Bond films as more than a little goofy, but they still bear potent, if nonsensical, pleasures. How absurd, how wonderfully extravagant all their shimmering surfaces are. So too the complacent fantasy that a spy can return the world to good order with heightened doses of masculine energy, technology, and a chilled martini.
Everett’s Dr. No uses wide-angle farce to refract the fantasy of the first 007 movie, with which it shares a title, through the lens of a contemporary, race-savvy viewer. It is not exactly a critique of Bond fantasies; it’s more a refunneling of them to illustrate the challenge of getting to first principles—whatever the something is that came before present-day assumptions. Interpretive mishaps trouble the book’s narratives of government and assassination, as well as of its characters’ histories. The novel also messes with us in amusing miniature. Tiny casual slips undermine phrases as units of meaning—for instance, “a person or a color” rather than “person of color.”
It’s easy to forget that a novel is so named because it is, at its very best, novel. In Glyph, which repudiates linguistic expression as a source of fixed, unmediated meanings, the narrator’s father announces, “Fuck novels. I’ve found a better way of expressing myself. Besides, nobody is fooled by fiction or poetry anymore.” Yet read together, Everett’s more than 30 books are marked by intellectual restlessness. Dr. No not only uncharnels fantasies; it also twists the genres of those fictions and dresses them in a healthy dose of hokum, before pitching itself to us with renewed velocity, all with the proposition that a novel should ever be thus.
Hectic play shocks conventional taxonomies. Or at any rate, realism’s replication of a plodding literal-minded consciousness. What a spectacular middle finger this book waves at those orthodoxies. Even as it insists on quantum nothingness, right to its final sentence, Dr. No turns out to have fooled us by being about something after all.•