Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hmm. A lot of Mumbo Jumbo You Say

What to think about Ishmael Reed’s postmodern novel Mumbo Jumbo? Well, I don’t rightly know, so after an overview of the novel’s themes and storylines, I will try to explain how this book could be genius or possibly drivel, I am unsure which, but in the end its message is one that is extremely powerful and relevant to everyone who has ever lived.

To begin, here is my summary: The book’s plot revolves around the dealings of a mysterious monotheistic group called “The Wallflower Order,” clearly referring to the type that stands around the outskirts of your typical dance, enviously, while others have fun in the center shaking their hips. They are mostly concerned with controlling the masses—i.e. a secrete society bent on world domination (a typical postmodern thematic device)—by suppressing this thing/feeling/energy that just grew among the population, mostly among African-Americans, appropriately named “Jes Grew.” To achieve this, they renew their long lost kinship with the Knights Templar who they were partly responsible for ousting from power way back when King Philip IV of France removed Pope Boniface VIII from office by force during a very, very complicated time in history that resulted in Pope Clement V being a religious/political puppet for the state who more or less dissolved the Knights Templar Order at Philip’s request which took with it much papal power.

Let’s just say that the Knights Templar are somewhat bitter and want to regain their former prestige. Did I mention that these two groups are portrayed as being immortals? Well, their symbolism should be somewhat apparent—people like this never die or there are always people like this sort of thing. But Jes Grew (JG) also has those who are trying to bring it about more fully to the annoyance of the Wallflower Order, itself a branch of a group called the Atonists that can sort of said to be the opposite of Jes Grew Carriers, most notably among those standing in opposition to them is protagonist PaPa LaBas, who is an older black gentleman living in Harlem who is something like a witchdoctor. He and his acquaintance Black Herman, a magician who really existed, are attempting to locate a secret JG text that would spread JG, tracking it down to its last known whereabouts in the office of militant, black Islamic convert named Abdul Sufi Hamid, who takes his monotheistic religious sentiments to the pulpit of the street-corner.

While this stuff is going on there are also the following: a group of art thieves who are returning African art to the people it was taken from and brought to the West, demonic possession turns LaBas’s daughter into a nymphomaniac, and Henckle and his men are trying to locate the perfect “Talking Android” (someone who happens to be black that is actually the mouth piece for the Atonist way). By burning the book then, Abdul does one better than he could have done as the Talking Android because with that act he resolved the JG crisis by taking away its text thus manifesting the prophesy “Jes Grew was jumpy now because it was 1920 and something was going on. A Stirring. If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment,” (211).

Hmm. Like most of the quote unquote great works of postmodern literature, I am unsure whether I hated or loved it. There were certainly things I loved about it and certainly things that I absolutely loathed. Every aspect of the work I can think of is like this so I don’t feel that being right in the middle here is an accurate representation. The main narrative of the novel was one example of this wildly varying feeling but when I look over my notes on the various plotlines

The major source of drama in the book, the frantic search for a semi-sacred text, I kept thinking was an extreme waste of time and completely and totally unnecessary since “Jes Grew,” which I guess could be defined as sort of the positive spirit of an age or the collective unconscious or that special thing that makes the universe resemble God or Nature or whatever that makes people care for one another as human beings through the cultivation and celebration of life.

A lot of the reviews I have read were based on racial defensiveness (and limited understanding of what exactly was going on with the whole JG phenomenon) either saying that if you don’t like this book you are probably a white who hates blacks as a result of I.R. telling a truth that white America is unwilling to accept/account for and end up ignoring the work’s merits as a piece of literature. For example see Rastafari Speaks Interactive review of the book, where the author writes “Even arch-whiteman literary pundit Harold Bloom included this book on his list of the ‘500 most significant books in the Western canon’ even though it exposes the rigidity and fear at the heart of ‘white civilization.’ I guess Bloom could not ignore Ishmael Reed’s wildly inventive use of the novelistic form.” White America, on the other hand, think that I.R. is a racist akin to Louis Farrakhan who was just trying to preach black superiority against the white devil or whatever. Either way, these people are missing the point. JG, it is explained, did not originate out of Africa and is not specific to any one ethnic group.

Though set in 1920s Harlem during the “Harlem Renaissance,” Reed presents this time as a vehicle that this celebration of life and freedom—i.e. Jes Grew—was almost able to move through when the oppressive “one way” nearly became actualized in not only the black community but in the potential human community. This is basically taking “the Kingdom of God” that Jesus was always talking about and taking it out of the Christian context which throughout its history has been mainly concerned with reinforcing the status quo.

The Areas of His Expertise

John Hodgman’s book The Areas of My Expertise was hilarious. Yes, I actually found myself laughing out loud and what not; but that was not what was most fascinating a bout the book. Actually, the whole thing was pretty fascinating, even if it was completely made up.

I was turned on to John Hodgman’s work, funny only if you know that JH is the PC guy in the Mac commercials, by my girlfriend. If she is reading this review, you know who you are Sara Hof—aka the girl of my dreams (which is fact)—go ahead and stop reading because your Christmas present from my parents is implicated here so skip ahead to the next paragraph. So anyway, since this is obviously a review of John Hodgman and since he has another book out right now, I am sure anyone can figure out that my parents gift to my one true love in life is JH’s second work, More Information that You Require, and also since my gf is a genious and what not and the only person who reads my blog, it isn’t going to shock you, Sara Hof, when my parents hand over this gift to you whenever we go home to Indianapolis, whenever that may be, so just act surprised I guess.
Anyway, Hodgman’s satirical almanac of absurd historical information and totally made up facts about nearly everything makes for some good reading. In a day and age when we are bombarded with constant information, worthless facts seep in from every aspect of life and these things that we accumulate don’t really offer us anything. They don’t bring us any added skill to the work place and unless you go on Jeopardy! they aren’t going to make you any money. So why read an almanac filled with facts that your not going to be able to use, specifically Hodgman’s? Answering this question proves interesting and in it lies the genius, if you can really call it that, of Hodgman’s work, for in the info that he bestows upon us isn’t accurate at all, in fact, he goes beyond just making it up, he actually works hard at providing but nonsensical, incorrect info. The few things here that do in fact end up being true, i.e. discovery of a real furry lobster, he actually spends some time in asserting that this furry lobster and the one describes (actually a sea otter) “are not the same creature at all.”

What has come to be the most popular part of the book, the chapter “What You Did Not Know about Hoboes,” was actually something I had read in 2005’s edition of America’s Best Non-required Reading, which features David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to my graduating class at my alma mater Kenyon College that has become insanely popular since his self-inflicted death and can be found here. Though this section has brought hoboes into the mainstream, my favorite part of the work has to do with writing successful books. In that section, JH actually gives some pretty solid advice when he writes that one of the essentials one must have as a writer is “the belief that the world cares about what you have to say,” (47) which is a tough thing to have, really, and it is about the only thing that can make anyone really want to write, otherwise, there aren’t really all that many things to really motivate you. I also find his life of a writer to be pretty accurate when he says “Mine is the typical life of the professional writer: one of quiet contemplation and knowledge-gathering and masturbation and the cashing of enormous checks,” (18) except for the part about cashing enormous checks.

One of the interesting and surprising things about Hodgman’s work is that it does force you to learn in this absurd way. Because all of the jokes aren’t clear unless you have some pretty extensive knowledge, you end up looking up a great deal of stuff to fully appreciate his satirical wit. With knowledge, as JH explains, the world is “perhaps less magical, but also less frightening.” “Such is the effect of KNOWLEDGE,” he goes on, “upon the brain—a zinging clarity that does not quickly fade, but will last all the way to dinner, and then by bedtime will turn into awful, crushing dread,” (223) which is truth. So basically, what JH has done is played a sort of joke on us while critiquing our need for hard statistical facts, by embracing that need for constant knowledge though providing knowledge that is false and lacks meaning and in that, guess what, there is meaning.