Ishmael Reed Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 5) - Essay

Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reed, Ishmael 1938–

A distinguished Black American novelist, poet, and critic, Reed informs his fiction with black magic and satire. (See also Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 13 and 174.)

Reed speaks bluntly and uses dialect, blues rhythms, and slang, not in conformity with some theoretical program but because he can make them work. He is at his best with the jaunty seriousness of "Loup Garoup Means Change Into" and "Railroad Bill, a Conjure Man," and at his worst, in "Kali's Galaxy," when he abandons the direct rhythms of speech and gets pinnacled dim in the intense inane. (p. 106)

It is surprising how utterly free from melancholy and the sweet languor of despair ["Chattanooga"] is. The seductiveness of death and the fascination of suffering hold no charms for Reed. He doesn't like victims, doesn't really believe in them…. Reed is at home in the world, content to talk about Chattanooga in the vernacular and not to grab the first gilded bus to Jerusalem Celeste. There is a lot to be said for a man who is bored by death, defeat, and martyrdom, who has the good taste to accost that prototype of righteous losers, the frequently insufferable Antigone, in no uncertain terms. (pp. 107-08)

Thomas Stumpf, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1974 by Carolina Quarterly), Winter, 1974.

In his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Ishmael Reed emphatically declares what he will not do as a Black writer. Bukka Doopeyduk's narrative retells the tale told by countless Black heroes in Afro-American literature of their journey into the heart of whiteness only to deride its formulary disclosures and protests. Yet in parodying this confessional mode (the denouement of Doopeyduk's tale is his own crucifixion), Reed also attacks those Black writers who adopt fashionable approaches to experimental writing, who strive to be "Now-here" in "Nowhere." To turn from the stiffening form of the traditional novel James Baldwin shares with John Updike only to fall into the linguistic despair of William Burroughs or the elaborate glosses of metafiction is an artistic fate Reed has taken great pains to avoid. And therein lies the problem that has informed his subsequent fiction, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) and Mumbo Jumbo (1972). How does one comprehend the significance of Burroughs' narrative form, write in the parodic manner of Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme, and at the same time hold an opposed view of history, an optative, almost Emersonian sense of the dawning day? In his collection of poetry, Conjure (1972), Reed unequivocally asserts that Neo-HooDoo, this new direction in Afro-American literature, constitutes "Our Turn," a radical severance of his destiny as a writer from the fate of his White contemporaries. Appropriately the final poem, "introducing a new loa," transforms Burroughs' emblematic nova, the dying light of Western civilization, into a "swinging HooDoo cloud," the birth of a new Africanized universe of discourse. "I call it the invisible train," he writes, "for which this Work has been but a modest schedule."

The course of Reed's experimentation with narrative has thus increasingly involved his conception of Neo-HooDoo as a literary mode. My purpose in this essay is simply to take him at his word—the considerable claim that he has found a way of writing fiction unlike those decreative and self-reflexive fictive modes in which his White contemporaries seem imprisoned. Reed is careful, of course, not to establish Neo-HooDoo as a school. It is rather a characteristic stance, a mythological provenance, a behavior, a complex of attitudes, the retrieval of an idiom, but however broadly defined, Neo-HooDoo does manifest one constant and unifying refrain: Reed's fiercely professed alienation from Anglo-American literature. Ultimately, then, Neo-HooDoo is political art, as responsible as Richard Wright's Native Son, but without Wright's grim realism or the polemical separatism that characterizes Imamu Baraka's work. For Reed the problem is to get outside the "Euro-Am meaning world" (Baraka's term) without getting caught as an artist in a contraposed system…. In Reed's fiction, particularly the novels after Pallbearers, this rigorous denial of the "dominant culture" and its critical values has led to paradoxes and ambiguities that are exceptionally "good" in the terms of "that traditional critique." One can invent myths, invoke legends, change his name and dress, but he cannot will himself into another language. And it is specifically literary language with its seductive devices, its forms and rhetoric, that pulls the self-styled exile back into the consciousness he professes to despise. More than any other contemporary Black writer, Reed seems aware of this dilemma, the difficulty of fashioning an art form that will liberate him from the double consciousness signified by the hyphen between Afro and American. Yet this liberation is the objective of Pallbearers, the meaning of its negations, and the challenge of his later fiction.

As the narrator of Pallbearers, Doopeyduk speaks literally from the grave. The scat-singing voice that introduces the novel does not belong to the Doopeyduk who speaks within the narrative duration of Pallbearers. In killing off that latter Doopeyduk, Reed murders a style, the Black writer's appropriation of what D. H. Lawrence (in a different context) called "art-speech." Doopeyduk's attempt to fashion his discourse in formal English only reveals his stupidity, an ignorance not of correct grammar or proper diction, but of his world. For the language in which he invests his feelings and perceptions is a dead language. He speaks to his wife, the combustible Fannie Mae, as though he were translating a text, and her response is appropriately ribald. It is not, however, just the White man's "art-speech" in the Black man's voice that Reed burlesques. He attacks as well the conventions of Afro-American literature, its traditional modes of rendering and interpreting Black experience…. The structure on which Reed relies in this narrative, which he inflates and explodes, is the structure of Richard Wright's Black Boy, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and the many subsequent books like them: "read growing up in Soulsville first of three installments/or what it means to be a backstage darky." Reed delivers the obligatory scenes of such confessional fiction with studied vulgarity…. The rites of passage established by Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin in their fiction are stripped of their dramatic force and reduced to the pratfalls of a burlesque routine. (pp. 126-28)

At his best,… Reed achieves the surrealistic brilliance of Burroughs' skits in Naked Lunch. But between these extremes the prose often stalls in orthographical and grammatical posturing—misspelling for the hell of it. Finally, then, the problem with Doopeyduk's posthumous voice is that it is too obviously worked, too strained in its license. Burroughs' ability to transform street language, the idiom of the junk world, into powerfully stated and precise metaphors, a figurative language as dense and complex as any other in literature, remains the modern epitome of an accomplished colloquial style, an excellence Reed fails to attain in Pallbearers. What he does achieve, however, is the elliptical flow and quick displacements of Burroughs' narrative, the cutting edge of Burroughs' cold understanding of modern reality. The Hobbesian question—"Wouldn't you?"—posed in Naked Lunch as the resolution to the Algebra of Need is rephrased throughout Pallbearers…. Yet if Reed manages to erase the whiteness in his writing (the well-wrought form and rhetoric that won Baldwin so much critical praise) and breaks conclusively with the traditional novel, he does not emerge with a contrary Black style. The language of Pallbearers is an orchestration of idiolects, conflicting types of speech that caricature their speakers, but no single voice rules this contrived discordance….

Yellow Back Radio constitutes Reed's attempt to reconstruct a coherent perspective and viable form from the necessary wreckage of Pallbearers. Armed with supernatural "connaissance," the magic of poetry, the Loop Garoo Kid replaces Doopeyduk, the hapless victim, at the center of Reed's fiction. "One has to return," Reed writes in the introduction to 19 Necromancers, "to what some writers would call 'dark heathenism' to find original tall tales, and yarns with the kind of originality that some modern writers use as found poetry—the enigmatic street rhymes of some of Ellison's minor characters, or the dozens. I call this neo-hoodooism; a spur to originality…." Neo-HooDoo as an experimental mode [is] the concept that informs Yellow Back Radio…. In its syncretistic composition, its diversity of gods and forms of worship, its avoidance of dogmatic structures, voodoo is Reed's reality-model, the known world forever hidden from the gaze of Westerners. Within it Loop is invulnerable; sheltered by ritual, aided by the endless resources of Nature, and empowered by the full possession of his body. (pp. 130-32)

The problem in Yellow Back Radio is to translate voodoo in a singular way of writing, to dislodge it from its status as a cultural myth and make it instead a state of consciousness. As we shall see, Reed does not write mythically—he writes about writing mythically.

If only in theory, then, Neo-HooDoo represents a new direction (so Reed argues) for the Black writer, an escape from the decadence of Anglo-American literature that reverses the path historically taken by Black writers and intellectuals in the United States. (p. 132)

But where are the "original folk tales" and native idioms in Reed's fiction? How far indeed does Neo-HooDoo (both as myth and mode) take him from established literary canons? His discourse in Yellow Back Radio and Mumbo Jumbo curves in and around colloquial Black English, which serves him as a stylistic device, not as a language. It is withal a learned and allusive discourse as mixed in its diction as Mark Twain's. His forms are not narrative legends taken from an oral tradition, but rather the popular forms of the Western and the Gangster Novel…. Yellow Back Radio is a Black version of the Western Burroughs has been writing in fragments and promising in full since the fifties. Not only is the content of the fiction eclectic in its composition, but Loop's performance as a houngan in it has a good deal of Burroughs' "Honest Bill." For the core of his narrative, Reed borrows almost intact the sociological drama Norman Mailer describes in The White Negro—that migration of White middle-class youth in revolt against the values of their own culture toward the counter-culture of Black America—and then weaves into this phenomenon a barely disguised account of the student uprisings at Berkeley and other campuses. The shooting at Kent State comes after the publication of Yellow Back Radio, but it is accurately prefigured in the book. (pp. 132-33)

Into this revised Western,… Reed pours all the bitterness of present history. Certain Blacks betray Loop for the same dubious rewards that prompted Apache scouts to lead the cavalry to Geronimo. Official Washington is as blind and uncaring about the student massacre in the hinterland as it was during the Indian Wars of the 1880s. And like the Sioux after their crushing defeat at Wounded Knee, the victims of Gibson's peace (the students and Black militants of the sixties) dream apocalyptic dreams, create a drug culture (peyote/LSD), and retreat into themselves. So the narrative unfolds and draws to its necessary end. The only hold-out, the last authentic outlaw, is the artist, the worker of spells, Loop as necromancer. Yet in expanding the scope of the narrative in the final section to give Loop his mythopoeic due, Reed loses the bite of his allusive framework. The ending (Loop on a scaffold about to be hanged) presents a dazzling array of black-outs, bizarre Warholian bits, one-liners. But the laughter at the center of all this hilarity is so cold in its nihilism that it chills the book's critical perspectives…. [The] history that gives Reed his narrative line in Yellow Back Radio runs out on him.

When the Pope arrives near the end of the narrative …, the book dissolves into lectures…. In effect, the Pope's arrival restores the hyphenated consciousness Reed seeks to annul in his fiction. It is the Pope who fills us in, who makes the connections that enable us to see how and why Loop works as a character. Yellow Back Radio thus turns into a book about Neo-HooDooism. And every explanation, every concealed footnote, betrays the artifice of the myth. Reed's mythopoeic lore is as arcane as the cryptic references strewn about in Burroughs' fiction. And his art, it would seem, bears as much relation to James Brown doing the "Popcorn" or Jimi Hendrix stroking his guitar as does T. S. Eliot's, whom Reed consigns in his manifesto to the graveyard of Christian culture….

In [Mumbo Jumbo] Reed concentrates on the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties (Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, et al)…. Mumbo Jumbo, then, is primarily an historical narrative, a tragicomical review of what went wrong in the twenties…. As such, the book is also an ingenious dissertation on the nature of Afro-American art, a dissertation with a program for the revival of that art.

By fracturing his narrative into a series of sub-texts (there is even a romance, Earline's love for Berbelang), Reed solves some of the problems that arise in Yellow Back Radio, notably the problem of introducing a great amount of mythological information…. Each story generates its own point of view … and gives Reed the ability to range widely over the dramatic possibilities within his myth. Similarly the diversity of these interpretations reflects the subtlety and complex nature of the Harlem Renaissance. (pp. 134-36)

Readers unfamiliar with the leading figures and notable disputes of the Harlem Renaissance will have a difficult time with Mumbo Jumbo…. Unlike Yellow Back Radio, where Reed's focus often seems simplistic and his energies diffused, Mumbo Jumbo swirls with the taut intricacy of a Jacobean revenge play. (p. 137)

[Though] Reed mercilessly attacks Eliot and Ezra Pound in Conjure as "Jeho-vah Revisionists," the archpriests of "atonist" literature, Mumbo Jumbo is as brocaded with mythic, literary, and historical allusions as either [The Waste Land] or the Cantos…. His fiction has become increasingly complex, learned, and witty (Mumbo Jumbo has a bibliography that extends for five pages)…. In a sense, the problem with Mumbo Jumbo is that it is not mumbo jumbo at all. (p. 138)

Reed's Neo-HooDooist moves finally along the same metafictive angle that Pynchon and Barthelme take in their fiction, probing folklore and myth with the same seriocomic intent, to wrench from them their own truths. What distinguishes Reed's Neo-HooDooist is his adamant optimism, his belief that "print and words are not dead at all" …, the ringing note on which Reed ends his preface. (p. 139)

Neil Schmitz, "Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmael Reed," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), April, 1974, pp. 126-40.

In such original comic novels as The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed displayed powers of camouflage, mimicry and verbal play that drew praise from his peers—though very little cash from his publishers. As a black writer with a ticklish touch, Reed had to sit in the back of the literary omnibus until the white audience tired of having their heads whipped by the Cleavers and Joneses.

Yet Reed can hardly be accused of eye rolling and cake-walking for his supper. His angers and resentments are sheathed in intelligence, learning, scatological wit and showmanship. One thinks of Redd Foxx before he was Sanfordized, or Philip Roth confronting his middle-class American Jewish background in ways that have been judged, perhaps too hastily, as self-hateful and tasteless. Likewise, many blacks may find themselves both amused and offended by The Last Days of Louisiana Red, a combination circus freak show, detective story, Negro Dead Sea Scroll and improvised black-studies program….

Reed spares precious few of his brothers and sisters. (He even offers a veiled suggestion that Angela Davis is the modern equivalent of the stern black mama figure trying to shape up her offspring in the absence of a father.) A minister named the Rev. Rookie is replaced by a Moog synthesizer; Maxwell Kasavubu, a button-down black literary critic, hallucinates that he is Richard Wright's illiterate murderer Bigger Thomas. Reed even brings back those veteran moochers from Amos 'n' Andy, the Kingfish and Andrew H. Brown, now trying to cash in on the street-corner Hindu racket. "Andy," says the Kingfish, "I think it's about time we went into the Karmel bizness."

Reed himself admits that he has more in common with Calvin Coolidge than with Dionysus. Bacchanalian plots and extended riffs of funky prose scarcely disguise the conservative folksiness within.

R. Z. Sheppard, "Gumbo Diplomacy," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 21, 1974, p. 119.

It's not always easy to understand what is going on in … ["The Last Days of Louisiana Red"], and even when you do gain a slippery foothold, it is not necessarily for long. The pyrotechnics are all here, but the mixture of savage jokes, scathing social commentary, folklore, and black history that coalesced so well in his last novel, "Mumbo Jumbo," is a lot less funny and a lot more self-conscious and stagey. "Louisiana Red" is the author's euphemism for all the venal, cruel, competitive, self-deceiving, and self-defeating instincts in black men and women, which divide them and keep them enslaved. In the story, a huge, evil corporate entity called the Louisiana Red Corporation is pitted against an equally huge, but good, highly secretive company called the Solid Gumbo Works. Spies, double agents, liars, and hypocrites abound, and the antagonists drop like flies. Sometimes the social commentary is impressive and the satire quite funny, but the book hits out in so many directions at once that it eventually self-destructs. (pp. 208, 210)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 4, 1974.

Whoever called him Ishmael picked the right name. His hand is against every man's—and every woman's, too. Or so it seems. He is a black Juvenal, a man to whom satire comes as naturally as breathing. And, like Juvenal, he might well ask who could consider the last decade and not be a satirist. Especially if he concentrated on the San Francisco Bay area. So Ishmael Reed is a black satirist, which is not exactly the same thing as a black humorist. Oh no. Though his prose wickedly parodies everything from street talk to academic rhetoric, he is not to be confused with those who use their own cleverness as a shield against the ugly world. Ishmael Reed is a committed man, a satirist with a specific point of view. Beneath that funky facade beats the heart of a preacher.

Since his first novel, "The Free-Lance Pallbearers," appeared in 1967 he has been recognized as a writer of extraordinary facility. His prose has been compared to such masters of other media as Hieronymus Bosch and John Coltrane. With each new novel—"Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down" in 1969 and "Mumbo Jumbo" in 1972—his reputation has increased. In fact, people have been laughing at him so hard and praising him so indiscriminately that little attention has been paid to what he is saying. In his fourth novel ["The Last Days of Louisiana Red"] he is as funny as ever, but the message is coming through clearly, and not all those who understand it are going to find it palatable. For Reed is offering his own fiction as an antidote to certain elements of black mythology dear to the heart of liberal sociologists.

The world of "The Last Days of Louisiana Red" is a cartoonist's version of the last decade in Berkeley, Calif….

Ishmael Reed has a shrewd eye, a mean ear, a nasty tongue…. [He] attacks self-serving hypocrisy wherever he finds it….

[The hero] LaBas … exposes the false history of blacks in America, a history concocted and supported by white men and black women—who have always gotten along together very well. This false history fosters the myth that black women have been the only force holding families together over the years. LaBas [says] … that this belief is an insult to "the millions of negro men who've supported their families, freemen who bought their families freedom, negro men working as parking-lot attendants, busboys, slop emptiers, performing every despicable deed to make ends meet against tremendous odds." And through LaBas's words we hear the voice of Ishmael Reed, preaching up a storm. (p. 2)

Robert Scholes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1974.