The simplest way to approach Reckless Eyeballing, Ishmael Reed’s seventh and shortest novel, is as a straightforward satire on the order of Philip Roth’s Our Gang (1971)—clever, certainly, but too much the product of the author’s anger and invective and too little the product of his art. In Reed’s case, the situation is further complicated by his choosing to attack not an already embattled and increasingly unpopular president but instead a far more sensitive and fashionably radical subject, the feminist movement.
In the play-within-the-novel that is also called Reckless Eyeballing, a black man is accused and subsequently lynched for eye-raping—ogling—a white woman who, twenty years later, has the body exhumed and tried. In explaining why she has waited so long, Cora Mae says that “she’d been converted from a rock-and-roll sex kitten to a radical feminist and was only now capable of assessing the heinousness of Ham Hill’s crime,” which, according to Cora Mae and the play’s feminist audience, is as heinous as that of the lynch mob. The satire here is as deceptive as it seems to be all-too-obvious—or, to put it another way, is more figurative than literal—not that this has prevented a number of reviewers from reading Reed’s novel as reviewers misread another of the many plays included in Reckless Eyeballing, Randy Shanks’s The Rise and Fall of Mighty Joe Young, a satire “whose premise was that American women craved to be raped by a beast.”
Flannery O’Connor once said, to accommodate the near blind, one has to write large, and Reed’s—and Shanks’s—use of satire, caricature, and grotesquerie does exactly that in an effort that extends well beyond a localized attack on feminism to, specifically, black women writers who, like Alice Walker in The Color Purple (1982), ennoble their female characters at the expense of black males—men who seem to have time and energy only to beat, rape, suck dry, and finally abandon their women. Just as Reed’s novel begins with a dream that only gradually comes into focus, the purpose behind his satire is at first unclear—paradoxically so in that it appears too clear, too narrowly directed—and only gradually, if at all, does the reader become aware that the kind of feminism caricatured in Reckless Eyeballing is less the subject of this fiction than one manifestation of a much larger and less easily defined issue.
Novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, anthologist, editor, publisher, and indefatigable publicist for minority writers, Reed advocates diversity and so resists the uniformity of the social and cultural mainstream. Within Reckless Eyeballing, this aesthetic of openness and diversity manifests itself in Reed’s by-now familiar “scatter” style (cutting rapidly from topic to topic, from character to character in defiance of linear progression and Western logic) and, more important, in the way he weaves into his story not only the word “monologue” (natural enough in a novel that is ostensibly about black playwrights) but also the very concept that it suggests. The essence of the novel as a genre is, as Mikhail Bakhtin has argued, its dialogical openness, which is to say, its resistance to all forms of monological closure. What Bakhtinian dialogue does is to undermine, or “decrown,” the authority of the monological (and therefore serious) word: the word that represents itself as final. Whether Reed is in fact familiar with Bakhtin’s theory of the dialogical imagination is unclear. What is clear is the way in which he foregrounds and thereby defamiliarizes monologue in Reckless Eyeballing. In this novel about playwrights and their plays (a particularly monological form, according to Bakhtin), Reed’s characters (and there are a bewildering number of them in this short novel) often single out a particular monologue in whatever play they are discussing, claiming to find in it the meaning to that play or the key to its reception. Their emphasis on key monologues tends to transform the plays into polemics and, worse, implies a hierarchical structure, a literary feudalism, according to which certain elements are important and others are not, which runs counter both to Reed’s scatter approach and to his efforts to democratize the American literary scene by opening it up to a pluralism of voices.
In Reckless Eyeballing, there are, in addition to the monologues discussed by the characters, the monologues that they themselves deliver, in which they propound the single-minded theories—sexist, racist, anti-Semitic—that they mistake for the truth. Buppie (black yuppie) drama critic Paul Shoboater, for example, delivers a three-page monologue in which he interprets recent attacks on Jews as a sign of what is in store for blacks in coming years. It is a plausible enough idea but one which leads him to make sweeping claims about white society, such as equating Hamlet and the serial murderer Son of Sam. As the plausible transmogrifies into the ludicrous (as it repeatedly...
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