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.