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Real Ragtime

By Ishmael Reed
Bantam, $1.50

I like to give Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (Bantam, $1.50) to my literary friends because it fucks with literary standards. Okay, so it's impossible to know whether Reed really believes in the feeding of loas and the African ancestors of Warren Gamaliel Harding, both connected to the outbreak of Jes Grew (a/k/a ragtime) suppressed by a conspiracy of Knights Templar and the Wallflower Order in the '20s. What's really going to piss off the profs is that it's also impossible to figure out whether such habits as asterisking historical sources "*Castles in the Air--Irene Castle"), or never writing out numbers ("It isn't an authentic Chitterling Switch but an imitation 1"), or illustrating the text with anachronistic photographs (from "National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City," "Fred McDarrah," etc.) are as naive as they look or just sneaky gibes at the aesthetes and academics he has it in for.

Admittedly, I'm being a little arch, because in fact I'm all but certain Reed does literally believe his theory of Jes Grew, though he'd probably leave the feeding of loas to Papa LaBas and work with the typewriter himself. But how conscious his antiliterary devices are I'm not sure. That's why they work--Reed never indulges in nose-tweaking for its own sake, which is to say he's never arch. This doesn't mean I can't be, however. I like Bob Dylan, Europe, and white people in general more than Reed seems to, but I don't feel left out, because Reed is a radical pluralist. What Knight Templar Hinckle Van Hampton seeks is a Negro Viewpoint--"He doesn't mind the shape of the idol sexuality, economics, whatever, as long as it is limited to 1"--is what Reed hopes we all just grow out of.

In a time of rampant aesthetic reaction, when taste barons who never understood Jes Grew well enough even to fuck with it stop patronizing it and renew active hostilities, we need Mumbo Jumbo. Funny, infuriating, and deeply inconsistent, it is an avant-garde novel of ideas more accomplished, accessible, and formally adventurous than whatever the Atonists are throwing the laurel at these days. Eat your heart out, Walter Abish. You too, E. L. Doctorow.

Village Voice, Dec. 22, 1981