In an interview with John O’Brien, Ishmael Reed once defined the novelist as a“fetish-maker” and the novel as an “amulet.” The language he used is instructive in that it “conjures” (another of Reed’s favorite words) a cultural perspective quite different from the more conventional European one that Reed’s densely and enthusiastically intertextual approach opposes and parodically undermines. Against the linear and largely univocal tradition of the European novel, Reed offers a fiction that is both diffuse and multivoiced, close in structure to the Sufi “scatter style” that characterizes Reed’s essays. His innovativeness involves a recycling of older, often previously marginalized (in the West, that is) styles and materials. This recycling is, however, not at all nostalgic. Reed uses material from the past “to explain the present or the future,” he has written. “Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in tombs to receive visions of the future. That is prophecy. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future.” In the case of Flight to Canada, this past is most specifically and hilariously Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852). Far from being a simple parody, Reed’s novel is, in Jerome Charyn’s words, “a demonized Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that draws upon two additional aspects of Reed’s “Voodoo” (or, alternately, “NeoHooDoo”) aesthetic. First, it brings together past and present at a single spatial-temporal narrative point, and second, it amalgamates a vast variety of materials, of which Stowe’s novel and the slave narratives upon which it is based are only the most obvious. Just as Stowe exploited the slave narrative tradition for her own novelistic and moralistic purposes, Reed exploits Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this time in a self-conscious rather than (as in Stowe’s case) self-effacing manner.
Flight to Canada is divided into three parts. The first, “Naughty Harriet,” makes abundantly clear Reed’s satiric thrust. Reed’s opening gambit does more than ironize Stowe and her novel. It calls into question the very idea of openings, something Michel Foucault was doing at around the same time, though in a far more theoretical manner. Thus, “Naughty Harriet” opens with what in effect may be described as a series of openings. The allusion to Stowe is immediately followed by the poem “Flight to Canada,” signed by Raven Quickskill, whose signature forms an integral part of the poem. The next fifteen pages offer a brief, italicized account...
(The entire section is 1077 words.)