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, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

This is the second Ishmael Reed novel I’ve read, and the second I’ve loved.  I was given Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by a friend who swore she couldn’t understand this or others of Reed’s books.  It’s true that Reed’s prose doesn’t follow conventional syntax at all times, but for whatever reason that makes it all the more appealing to me.  The narrative, it turns out, is as linear as one could want.

More of interest is the subject matter–at least, more of interest to me at the time of this writing.  This was Reed’s second novel, to be followed by Mumbo Jumbo, his most famous, on which I have written earlierAnother blogger, reviewing YBRBD, suggested that it was an easier read than Mumbo Jumbo, which may well be true.  The references may be less dense, or possibly more familiar to readers in the United States, as YBRBD is a send-up of sorts of Westerns, a cultural reference-point widely shared in the US, where the centrality of Vodun in Mumbo Jumbo is surely less familiar territory to the average US reader, even, and possibly particularly, to the literate public, so-called.

Really, I do a disservice to Reed in calling the book a send-up, even though coming from me this is the highest of compliments, as I tend to to find more value in the satirizing of something than in the thing satirized itself.  That said, Reed presents us with a Black central character, the Loop Garoo Kid (loup garou=werewolf), Vodun practitioner in the American West, terrorizing the forces of encroaching white capitalism, all the while in-and-out of league with the Pope.  Reed–and I don’t want to suggest that he is anything other than meticulous in his method–gives the feeling of throwing reference after reference onto the page to see which ones stick.  It’s exhilarating.

So, why it’s not a satire (while at the same time, it is): the West Reed describes is closer to the real thing than what one gets in Westerns.  It was (is) not just white cowboys and Indians, but a whole host of people, including, particularly, Black people.  Moreover, Reed very clearly, though briefly, clarifies the driving force behind the westward expansion of the United States as capitalism, not a spirit of adventure or some civilizing mission.  On this, he is demonstrably correct.

Reed recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times wisely pointing out that much white “progressive” critique of Obama mistakenly assumes that Obama has the same options as President as a white person would have, Harry Truman, for example.  Reed caught some predictable flak. Reed is right-on about Obama and white progressives, however, and I think part of the problem stems from the fact that white progressives very often–most often, I’d think–think that something has gone wrong with the United States, as opposed to the more correct idea that something has been wrong with the United States since it started, and before it as well.  Reed falls into the second camp.  And why?  Because the United States was founded as capitalism unfettered, with human capital, chattel slavery, as its most fundamental basis.  The entire cultural, intellectual, political, legal, and economic system of the country was founded with that in mind, and still reflects it.

Reed, and this is possibly even more visible in Mumbo Jumbo, critiques the whole of “Western Civilization.”  That’s what pisses white people off.  The Loop Garoo Kid brings African religious practice to North America.  This reflects historical fact.  Reed critiques Western Civ., but, far from a nihilistic perspective, with clear alternatives in mind.  One can live, in North America today, and not be “Western.”  It takes discipline (a discipline which, in my case, is still a work in progress) but it can be done.