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Mumbo Jumbo (Ishmael Reed)

April 9, 2010

First impression: Reed’s novel reminds me of Gerald Vizenor’s writing. It’s incredibly complex, dense, and crazy — and he makes up his own language. Just as Vizenor talks about Postindian survivance and trickster tales, Reed talks about mumbo jumbo and HooDoo culture. I loved it. I can’t wait to read more Reed — he’s amazing. A new favorite!

Okay, so my more intelligent-sounding thoughts? Yikes, where do I even begin. I hate to say it, but I feel like I was just skimming the surface with my understanding of what was happening in this book. I mean, I got the basic storyline, but there was so much going on all at once that I felt like I was in a little over my head. But I’ll do my best. I think the end of the novel was really the crucial part, as far as what Reed wanted to accomplish here. I mean, the idea that the Jes Grew pandemic was sweeping the nation, making everyone sing and dance and have a good ol’ time (and that these longstanding white-based organizations wanted so desperately to stop it that they [plot spoiler!!] enacted the Great Depression just to shut it down) was entertaining and an interesting thought experiment (I don’t mean that in a demeaning way). But it was really the end when Papa LaBas and Black Herman went to arrest/apprehend Hinkle Von Vampton and Hubert “Safecracker” Gould that we get the full backstory of Jes Grew and the deeper historical implications of the fight against this “disease.” And of course, you know I’m always a fan of this kind of historical rewriting — Reed takes all these ideas and cultural elements traditionally attributed to European (read: white) progress and turns them on their heads by illustrating how they all stem from African (Egypt, in most cases). This is another move that made me think of Vizenor, just because I think both authors are doing something similar here: the move to claim credit for the invention of these things (and to discredit other things, like Jesus…who I believe they referred to as a charlatan) and to expose the theft of African culture by Europeans is a way of decentering the West and pointing out that western ideas of “civilization” have in fact led to widespread barbarity throughout history, and that there’s something wrong with the histories we tell ourselves about the past.

In any case, you have to read this one! It’s really quite incredible, and while it’s dense and took me a few days to read, it was well worth it! I may end up an IR junkie, adding him to my list of greats like Gerald Vizenor, Karen Tei Yamashita, and JK Rowling (yes, I just lumped all those authors together).

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