Reed is the sort of impish satirical crank whose Promethean intellect and restlessly zesty creativity tingles my funnybones, but whose books always leave me yearning for more logic, understanding and clarity.
Makes no difference what I say. You know Ill tell history different.
There are some good parodic moments, and while the book indulges in some far flights of fancy in developing its conspiracy theories, it knows how to have fun with its own conceits, rather than deliver its material too dryly. While I'm sure we're not meant to take it as literal truth, with 1000 year old white Knights Templar plotting in a grand conspiracy to keep the black man down because of the danger inherent in his dance, there's certainly plenty of fair criticism of: -art institutes as a form of cultural piracy, -patronizing patrons who damn with faint praise, -generational disconnect that prevents the youth from learning from the legacy of their elders, -white America's contempt for Haiti and ignorance of its history, -wishy-washy white do-gooders whose sympathy is suspect and unreliable, -the indoctrination of some black folks to have contempt for their own race once they've been given a chance to rise one or two steps above their brethren, -and the hypocrisy of belittling native Afro-Caribbean spiritualism in favor of the white man's goofy Bible or Quran, as though those religious traditions were less "primitive" for the virtue of having been blessed by contact with Western Culture. Not that the book "explains" in the way I have done here (yeah, I'm dry and not fun, and I'm secretly a member of the Wallflower Order), but rather there's a long expository section in which the details of a conspiracy spanning all of human history are laid out. It's not that I object to such things on principal, but as I characterized it at the beginning of this review, "clunky" is the best way I can think to describe this section of the book that brings a halt to the semi-mystery/caper novel we were reading before. -Second Best would be Option B: Go Whole Hog. Develop and expand that whole expository section into an engaging, sprightly narrative on par with what came before, don't worry about the fact that it swells the novel to twice its current size, and still don't explain everything. But the least good option, Option C, is the way the book went, which was to just tell everyone what your idea was, even though the narrative progress is brought to a grinding halt.
You know I have a stack of books the size of an end table still to read, right? I know, this sounds so very much like every other work of conspiracy fiction ever published and I would have rolled my eyes so hard at some points that they would have dropped from my head and onto the table, if Reed's style weren't so whimsically refreshing. There are a lot of references packed into this slim volume and one reading can not hope to catch all of the nuance of Reed's work. I see now why James had so thoughtfully underlined many of his favorite passages, it's a great book to quote in conversation and one that I've found myself thinking about quite often in the days since finishing it.
As bizarre as the synopsis sounds, IR manages to inject even more weirdness in his novel by prankishly fiddling with the form: merging text with paratext, inserting seemingly random and/or displaced photos and graphics throughout, experimental punctuation... Don't you understand, if this Jes Grew becomes pandemic, it will mean the end of Civilization as We Know It?" "People hated Set. He went down as the 1st man to shut nature out of himself.
If you have read it, I suggest you check out any of Kip Hanrahan's CONJURE recordings, in which a stunning variety of black musicians (Allen Touissaint, Alvin Youngblood Hart, David Murray...that ain't close to all) bring many of the elements of MUMBO JUMBO to life, often with Mr. Reed reading over them.
Both books make me intrigued about Ishmael Reed as a writer and I'll definitely pick up something else of his at some point.