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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

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America, 1920s. A plague is spreading, and it’s spreading fast, from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.

It’s an epidemic of freedom, joy and self-expression, being spread by Black artists, that makes anyone who catches it desperate to dance, sing, laugh and jive. It’s the outbreak of Jazz, Ragtime and Blues onto the world scene; the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world. And it’s threatening to dismantle the whole social order.

Working to root out the plague by any means possible – even murder – are the members of The Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to puritanism and control. But, deep in the heart of Harlem, private eye and Vodun priest Papa LaBas is determined to defend his flourishing ancient culture against their insidious plans. And so, he finds himself locked in a race against the Order to find an ancient Egyptian text which might just be the key to keeping the virus of freedom alive.
~~~~~
I first heard of Mumbo Jumbo through Tor.com, specifically this essay in Nisi Shawl’s fantastic History of Black Science Fiction series. Given Shawl’s recommendation, I picked it up – from the general fiction, not SFF, section – as soon as I saw the new Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Mumbo Jumbo is an odd book; there is a single narrative strain to it, a single plot, but the way Reed tells his story, it feels rather more disjointed, more confused, less cohesive as a single thing. This is clearly an intentional choice, and lends a fascinating kind of puzzle quality to the book; working out how different things, different characters, and different aspects of the novel fit together with each other becomes a harder task, but also a more rewarding one, than in a more traditional Western narrative. Reed rejects these models to combine different forms into a single work, creating a modernist experimental novel.

That novel follows the phenomenon of Jes Grew, a kind of socio-spiritual movement which combines dance, religion, and free decolonised thought; Mumbo Jumbo can be read as (relatively) mimetic if the reader chooses, though Reed’s inclusion of supernatural elements, and a consciousness and intention behind Jes Grew, suggests such a reading would lose something key. The different things Reed draws into the story of Jes Grew include Western global colonialism, Black cultural development and radical Black thought in 1920s America, an internationalist tendency, a resistance to Western patronisation of other cultures, and more.

One of the ways Reed takes on imperialism in Mumbo Jumbo is through the Mu’tafikah, an internationalist and multiracial group dedicated to taking non-Western artifacts from Western museums and returning them to the cultures from which they were plundered. Reed is unabashedly on the side of these liberators, and the novel has, in its occasional moments of focus on them, an absolutely brilliant heist quality and sense of lightness. The characters of the Mu’tafikah are some of the most oddball of the novel, and absolutely wonderfully characterised, with their own prejudices but working together through them against a common enemy.

The other, more central plot of the novel follows the attempts of the Wallflower Order to suppress Jes Grew. Mumbo Jumbo posits an ideological system called Atonism that is upheld across the West, and seems to have its roots in Judaism; there is a somewhat antisemitic undercurrent in the way that Judaism is treated as a (part of) a shadowy force that has constantly attempted to suppress Black thought and art down history. The different ways the Atonists try to control power, and the different Atonist organisations – including the Knights Templar, and the Masons, naturally – are unsurprising and typical of this kind of conspiracy, but the way Reed writes them as barely competent and always on the edge of exposure and total failure is refreshing. Similarly, so is the opposition to the conspiracy; Reed gives us different individuals working at cross-purposes to the same ends of Black liberation, and Mumbo Jumbo draws both comic and tragic power from the factionalism of the resistance to White supremacy and the Wallflower Order.

The actual characters of Mumbo Jumbo are, given how intellectual the underpinnings of the novel are, actually fully fleshed out and interesting characters, far more than just authorial constructs. Reed gives us a broad cast, including Black gangsters and hustlers, White newsmen and bigots, a VouDou priest who also has a sideline in private detection, a Nation of Islam forerunner, and more. They’ve all got pasts, and perspectives on the Jes Grew phenomenon and the state of America; they’ve all got different interests outside the focus of the novel which they attend to from time to time, taking time away from the plot only to appear again, or even being followed while doing something of little immediate bearing. Mumbo Jumbo‘s pages are peopled by characters who are not only fully fleshed out but also familiar; not as tropes, but as people one might know, might have encountered in life, and Reed makes them all feel like old friends.

Mumbo Jumbo is a bit of a jumble of a novel, but it’s also a work of genius; a modernist masterpiece, a patchwork of different elements that arguably ought not to work together, but that Reed brings together with a confidence and style that makes it look almost easy. This is a strange, mind-bending read, like little else I’ve read.

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