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.