By Ishmael Reed
This book is something else! I picked it up on the basis of a short summary: during the Jazz age, a new dance takes people over uncontrollably, sweeping through the country. And yeah, I guess that’s sort of the basic structure that holds everything else together, but it is only the top gloss of a truly sprawling narrative.
In sheer scope of characters and plot lines, Mumbo Jumbo reminded me of Infinite Jest (though much shorter, only 217 pages), and after the most rudimentary of research (Wikipedia), I think it may exemplify postmodernism. Wikipedia defines postmodern literature as a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues. Mumbo Jumbo checks off every last one of those, and truly deserves to be taught alongside Pynchon, Wallace, and the rest. I only wish I’d been able to participate in a class or even a book club to go through this novel in detail!
Reed weaves so many allusions to historical, political, and cultural events throughout the plot (and even the occasional off-hand comment) that I’m sure I missed at least half of them. The ones that I caught, at least enough to follow up on with more research (Wikipedia again) were fascinating! For example, one of the plotlines revolves around Warren Harding’s run for president and people’s concern over his Black ancestry, which was a new one for me! I looked it up and it appears to have been a rumor spread by his unhappy father-in-law (debunked by DNA testing in 2015). On the other hand, every new fact about Warren Harding I read was completely bonkers, so I highly recommend reading both his and his wife Florence Harding’s Wikipedia pages.
Other plotlines include three Harlem mystics, devotees of different beliefs, in an amicable competition for believers (at least one of whom is possibly classic hotep?); art heists of European and US museums to return artifacts to their original countries; newspapers being used to send secret messages and either foment or quell various rebellions; a Haitian routing of a US invasion; among others. Each plot has a good half dozen characters with occasional overlap, all creating an extremely complicated but entertaining web.
I worry that I’m making this sound like slog, but while it wasn’t a quick read, the whole novel is also both very funny and emotionally engrossing. I really cared about the protagonists and their endeavors, and dreaded the machinations of the antagonists. The humor is both absurd and bitingly satiric, and the laser sharp cultural criticism still extremely resonant today.