Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada

As I have noted more than once before, Ishmael Reed is likely my favorite living author and certainly my favorite living satiristFlight to Canada is a very good friend’s Reed book of choice.

This may very well be the Reed book with which to start.  Mumbo Jumbo certainly puts forward a broad critical-theoretical framework in a way that Flight to Canada doesn’t, but by Reed’s standards the fact that Flight to Canada feels, using a more conventional syntax that either Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down or Mumbo Jumbo, like a more conventional read, makes it a good way in.

Reed, as far as substance goes, sacrifices nothing.  Set during and immediately after the United States’ Civil war, the topic here is black resistance.  Correctly, Reed gives us no compliant Blacks in the narrative, but rather shows numerous different, active responses to slavery and racist violence.  There’s the titular escape, but also Uncle Robin’s staying close to Master Swille and ultimate reliance on ancestral gods/spirits to inherit his estate: certainly a victory.  Reed has a sure sense of what resistance is, but a broad notion of what it might be.  Famously, on p. 88 of my edition:

Each man to his own Canada.

Words to live by.

Briefly: Reed’s humor is entirely on display throughout the novel.  Frequently, I laughed out loud, and as far as raw, satirical humor goes, his only equal might be the Marx Brothers at their best.  Truly, he’s that funny.

I’m at a loss for further words and have already returned the book to the library.  Get the book an read it for yourself, and fill with gratitude.

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Ishmael Reed, Juice!


I’m pretty sure that Ishmael Reed is my favorite living novelist from the United States.  I won’t dwell on whatever controversy Reed has engendered, above all accusations of misogyny or a tendency to characterize groups without nuance.  I read novels because I get something meaningful out of the process.  Gogol was an anti-semite, but Dead Souls is required reading, for example.  As far as whatever controversy goes, Reed has been assailed and defended himself, and that’s between other people I won’t even bother looking up to find links to.

Prior to reading Juice!, I’d read only two of Reed’s novels, Mumbo Jumbo and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.  Both had an absurd feeling that reminded me of the Marx Brothers, both demolished United States mythologies, and both posited a particular and at the same time open Blackness–not Reed’s specific word–as an alternative to white, racist capitalism.  I was particularly pleased at how Reed made ancestral religious practice current in both novels.

I’d read none of his later novels, until this most recent one.  Without doubt, times have changed and Reed’s approach has as well.  The novel centers (entirely–it’s from one perspective throughout) on an older Black cartoonist who becomes by his own admission obsessed with O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial, which he sees as a proxy trial for Black men generally, a sound perspective as far as I can tell.

I did not follow the trial when it happened.  I was in grad school and was more interested in playing jazz, drinking, drinking more (nothing glamorous about this, it screwed me up), and finding time in those last minutes to cram for class.  When he was acquitted, I figured there was a reason.  I didn’t know enough to say with certainty anything, but I know that things are stacked against a murder defendant, and if there’s an acquittal it indicates that there was some issue with evidence.

I mention this because much of the book reads more like an essay demonstrating evidentiary flaws in the prosecution’s case.  It’s interesting and I don’t feel that a novel need or even should be strict narrative.  Many people think O.J. murdered his wife, and might be upset with this discussion.  Don’t know what to tell you.

The real point of the novel, though, has nothing to do with whether or not O.J. murdered his wife.  Indeed, the narrator’s views on the subject change, though not as dramatically as some of his friends.  The point is the social use of the trial.  In this, I can’t but find Reed’s presentation of it flawless.  The Simpson trial made it safe for the white media–often called the “mainstream media”–to excrete all of its racist anxiety over Black men and call it “The News.”  This “Jim Crow media” hasn’t changed since the trial.  As almost an afterthought, as it falls chronologically at the end of the story, Reed points out that President Obama faces the same media.

The white media, Reed points out, does not by any means always present a white face to the public, even though the characters in the book who either own or manage the TV station at which Bear, the narrator, works are white.  The white media, like the British Raj, seeks collaborators from among the colonized to act as intermediaries with the public.  Three cases-in-point stand out: Princessa Bimbette, a Latina broadcaster who presumes O.J.’s guilt during the trial, and Jagid and Jagan, who host “Nigguz News,” which showcases Black people behaving badly and has some of the highest ratings on the station.  Reed in one passage puts it more broadly:

After two years, white women were over fifty percent of the employees at KCAK, but there was a growing number of Latinos.  The ‘right’ Latinos.  Those who were opposed to Latino Studies, bilingual education, and those who were not offended that the only consistent stories about Latinos KCAK broadcast involved girl gangs and Mexican immigrants.  (206)

The door is open if you fit the profile and can turn off some of the workings of your intellect.

One particular line stood out in the novel, because it throws the entire episode of the Simpson trial and its aftermath into proper historical context, that of the past 500 years or so:

In a settler society, when one of the settlers is murdered, the nearest native has to be burned.  (203)

This is not about whether or not Simpson did anything.  It is about the requirements of a settler colony, of which the United States continues to be one.

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Cover of "Mumbo Jumbo"

Cover of Mumbo Jumbo

I’ve thought for a few weeks now, having finished or nearly finishing a number of books I’ve been working on, to create a blog on which I respond to the things I read. Among other things, I’ve realized over the years that I am in a process of forgetting the things I’d read in my twenties. I don’t want to do that, and as I donated my library to the Riverside Public Library when we moved to Senegal, I can’t just go to my shelves to remind myself.

Last thing I finished was Mumbo Jumbo, which I’d been told made Ishmael Reed‘s reputation. I finished it a week ago Saturday, I’d read a piece he’d written for Counterpunch on “Precious,” obliterating the film in what is in hindsight an obvious way but which I’ll say I didn’t piece together myself. In any event, it put it in my head that I needed to read one of his books as I hadn’t yet.

The short and long of it was that it was a fantastic book, and I’m more satisfied with it than I think any novel I’ve read in a long while. Reed’s approach to text is idiosyncratic, but totally controlled. I’ve always liked writers who tweak the language, and it’s probably that which made me go through my Joyce phase right after college. I like Amos Tutuola as well, even though he got unfairly promoted as the stereotype of a primitive, unschooled writer, which is totally beside the point and which takes an imperialist approach to pidgins.

Reed is more of a tinkerer with syntax along the lines of Joyce than Tutuola, which is to say his control is totally obvious where Tutuola’s is hidden to the imperialist eye. The sentences in the book have an almost clunky rhythm to them, but absolutely consistent throughout and sort of reminiscent of the way dialogue would run in Stanley Kubrick‘s later films. I gather that Kubrick would run an absurd number of takes with actors and their dialogue would gradually become less natural, producing a type of stilted interaction that gave the impression that the characters were simultaneously in monologue and dialogue, a dissociation from the other. Kubrick used this to produce a sense of alienation, where on the other hand Reed produces a sense of absurdity–while dealing with absolutely serious questions–which is not unlike Gogol in effect if not intent.

Stylistic questions aside, for the last 10 years or so I’ve read more and more in what my wife calls the Subaltern Canon, beginning I think with C.L.R. JamesThe Black Jacobins, of course–and then to people like Vine Deloria, etc. My wife, too, has studied Vodun and thought deeply about it. Combining this, it was really a treat to find that Vodun and Haiti were so central to the text. I suppose I felt that I’d made some progress over the last 20 years or so. I had a pretty typical Western Civ. type of education, excepting my courses with Allen Greenberger at Pitzer. If I’d been assigned this in college, not only would I not have gotten any of the references, but I wouldn’t have been likely even in a position to have them explained to me. At 40, things fit together like pieces in an easy jigsaw puzzle. I know what loas are. It made for a great read.

Of additional interest: the book has numerous images, but–and I have to say this reminded me a bit of what I myself did when I would make those little booklets with my records and put them in ziploc bags, back in the old days–they were rarely directly related to the accompanying text. The result is to dislodge the reader from what is immediately present in the writing and expand the potential meanings of the novel. It engages a reader: because the images are generally not directly explained, one must engage one’s own creative mind to produce meaning.