Ishmael Reed Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 2) - Essay

Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reed, Ishmael 1938–

Black American novelist and poet, author of Mumbo Jumbo and This One's on Me. (See also, Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 6, 13 and 174.)

[The Norton Anthology of Poetry] spans the centuries from Chaucer to Reed. Whether he likes it or not, Ishmael Reed has for some time now occupied a black outpost in a white landscape. To judge from his new book [Mumbo, Jumbo], he doesn't like it much. His latest work, written with black humor, is a satire on the unfinished race between the races in America and throughout history. It is a book of deliberate unruliness and sophisticated incongruity, a dazzling maze of black-and-white history and fantasy, in-jokes and outrage, erudition and superstition. Not only to white readers like myself will the way into and out of this maze be puzzling. For though it's a novel, the author's method is not novelistic. Wholly original, his book is an unholy cross between the craft of fiction and witchcraft.

I don't mean merely that "Mumbo Jumbo" is about such mysteries as HooDoo or VooDoo. "Black Herman walks to the bed, picks up her scarf, and casts it to the floor where it becomes a snake." I mean that it attempts, through its deadpan phantasmagoria of a plot, and through the black art of the Magus as storyteller, to achieve the kind of hold on the reader's mind that from ancient times and in primitive contexts has always been associated with the secret Word, the sacred Text….

The book is … frankly and consummately freewheeling, part historical funferal, here a highbrow satire, here a low-key farce, even roman à clef….

Through all this, though he tells a fast-paced story, the author plays fast and loose with the conventions of storytelling. For example, in the very midst of a kidnapping, the tension is interrupted to provide—as a motive for the kidnapping itself—a long myth of Osiris, Moses and Jethro. Readers will find the experience rough, unless they are willing to put aside the usual expectations about what a novel is supposed to be, and the satisfaction it is rumored to provide. Ishmael Reed is unique, and he has other things to offer. If one stays with "Mumbo Jumbo," uncannily, the book begins to establish its very own life, on its very own terms.

The terms are demanding. Reed wants to convince, not persuade…. Ishmael Reed, in the manner of William Burroughs, avoids persuasion, he invites disbelief. Our very refusal (inability) to lend credence to the lurid anti-logic of "Naked Lunch" leaves us reeling—and then, if we can still turn pages at all, mesmerized by the novel's inner vision. Still, Burroughs deals in junk nightmares, Reed in black ritual….

Reed's tone … is curiously flat, opaque, hypnotic and carefully chosen. Earlier, in "The Freelance Pallbearers," he displayed a prose style of considerable transparency and brilliance. That first novel was a satire, too. A tale of slapstick and martyrdom; persuasive, but not convincing. His second novel, "Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down," was a Gnostic Western, a bizarre epic of cowpunching, hexing, execution and papal intervention. So wild that there the question of belief could hardly arise….

"Mumbo Jumbo" is all of these, but it is also sterner stuff than anything in his earlier books. The author is after bigger game now, and he has taken a risk. His terms in "Mumbo Jumbo" go beyond those of fiction. Beneath the passions of individual characters, beneath the conflict of blacks and whites, beneath every plague and blessing in the book, lies an opposition between the gods, between Osiris and Aton (compare Dionysos and Apollo)….

So I suspect that for Ishmael Reed "Mumbo Jumbo" is something a good deal more than a novel. Through all the wild gyrations of its black comedy, he casts a nonfiction spell, he weaves an incantation with footnotes, he endows his Text with power. And if one reads it through, one risks succumbing to the Text … or as Reed once put it in a poem, disappearing into it.

Alan Friedman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 6, 1972, pp. 1, 22.

Ishmael Reed … has a fine ear, not only for speech but for the undertones within cultural cacophony. Mumbo Jumbo isn't at all concerned with the traditional province of fiction, the registration of individual consciousness. Rather, as in his earlier books The Free-Lance Pall-Bearers and Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down, Reed opens fictional art to the forms and mythic possibilities of popular culture, pursuing not psychological description but a perspective on history….

Among all the other things it is, Mumbo Jumbo is an astringent commentary on an important and painful episode in the history of black consciousness, whose consequences still are felt.

Reed's is a quick and mocking mind, and I'm not finally sure how seriously he means his historical myth. But I'm content to read it as I read the "systematic" works of Blake and Yeats, not primarily as analysis but as an act of continuous and powerful invention, a demonstration that the imagination, black or white, when released from conventional forms and the idea of a monolithic history, can be wonderfully entertaining and instructive, moment by moment, about the sorry narrowness of our self-understanding and our expectations about art. Ishmael Reed's elsewhere turns out to be right next door, but his news of it is very new indeed.

Thomas R. Edwards, "News from Elsewhere," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), October 5, 1972, pp. 21-3.

Ishmael Reed's latest, his third and best, novel, Mumbo Jumbo, a "HooDoo" thriller, an all-out assault on Western civilization, and a tale of black magic that advances nothing less than the "VooDoo" theory of history….

Preposterous? Tongue undoubtedly in cheek? Well, Reed's theory of history as a vast paranoid conspiracy of white against nonwhite reminds me of nothing so much as Thomas Pynchon's last novel, The Crying of Lot 49, in which the heroine stumbles upon a frightening underground postal system, W.A.S.T.E., that has lasted through the centuries and emigrated from Europe to America. Both Reed and Pynchon bolster their theories with a mass of semifacetious pseudoscholarship. Both create characters that are little more than cartoons. Both use the form of the put-on, the joke, to convey a deadly earnest message: That there are vast and inexplicable forces at work behind modern civilization, which turn us into nothing better than cartoon characters; that history itself has gone out of control. Given all that is irrational in the currents of contemporary history, the crackpot-conspiracy theory of one day becomes the working hypothesis of the next. Why, after all, did Sigmund Freud call America "a big mistake"? Did he know something we don't know? Ishmael Reed's far-out explanation is as good as any.

Mumbo Jumbo, from the title on, sounds like one huge gag, an elaborate cartoon…. Nevertheless, Reed's novel is more than playful entertainment; it is a loving recreation of a past era intended as a homage to the forgotten traditions of the Afro-American heritage….

If Mumbo Jumbo is high-spirited, it is only in order to lay to rest at last those troubled spirits of his ancestors, those long-denied generations of Afro-Americans.

Andrew Gordon, "Spirits Abroad," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, October 14, 1972; used with permission), October 14, 1972, pp. 76-8.

Ishmael Reed's third novel signals his artistic coming of age. The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) was a zany fantasy containing some masterful touches and much wasted motion. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) reflected a distinct maturation of the author's satirical talents and displayed a subtle, probing intellect seeking expressive form. Mumbo Jumbo (1972 …) is—in the book's own terms—"The Work" itself….

Mumbo Jumbo offers an entrancing ratiocinative tale, a conspiracy view of history, a critical handbook for the student of the Black Arts, and a guide for the contemporary Black consciousness intent on the discovery of its origins and meanings….

Reed views history as a series of cyclic patterns in which the dominant issues are always the same: spirit against reason, originality against imitation, good against evil. The universe is Manichean; time is a pendulum, and the spirituality of ancient Egypt (the birthplace of man) has fought an immemorial battle with the forces of repression and destruction. The Templar Knights, the Teutonics, the Hospitalers, and countless armies have all sought to stamp out the spontaneity of the human spirit that results in creativity and freedom. Reed's term for this ineffable, pandemic and enduring quality is "Jes Grew" ("The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, 'jes' grew'"—James Weldon Johnson), and its carriers in America are the Black men and women who translated their experiences into melodies and motions that seemed to grow out of the soil that they worked from "can to can't" under a blazing southern sun….

Mumbo Jumbo is, perhaps, the first Black American novel of the last 10 years that gives one a sense of the broader vision and the careful, painful, and laborious "fundamental brainwork" that are needed if we are to define the eternal dilemma of the Black Arts and work fruitfully toward its melioration. The novel, of course, has its flaws (authorial intrusions that smack of juvenilia, overlong excurses, improbable conflations of time), but its overall effect is that of amazing talent and flourishing genius on the minds and emotions of those who carry Jes Grew.

Houston A. Baker, Jr., in Black World (© December, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Houston A. Baker, Jr.), December, 1972, pp. 63-4.

Ishmael Reed's volume of selected poems [Conjure] is described as a "conspicuously Black stance." Yet "Conjure" is more than just that, it is more ambitious, it is a conspicuously Individual stance. Though this is Mr. Reed's first full book of poems, it is not to be regarded as the usual first book, for his poetry is a close brother to his well-known prose writings. Yet the important movement of "Conjure" is still one of development toward an individually mature form; a form that comprises the major portion of the book. It is in these poems that one finds evidence of the poet's important movement from his initial concern with the "conspicuously Black stance," to that of a larger and more individual vision; that is, a vision leading his poetry into the realm of "Neo-HooDoo" where "every man is an artist and every artist a priest." A greatly provocative book.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), p. xvi.