Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum, 1974

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A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose can be served on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in December, 2017].

George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

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George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckter’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

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There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

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A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Christmas approaches, so let me recommend a Christmas novel for you: Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos (1982). I read it back in unChristmasy August and dipped into it a bit again today, looking for a passage or two to share. Maybe the bit where Santa Claus starts an anti-capitalist riot in Times Square?, or where the First Lady is electrocuted while lighting the White House Christmas tree?, or where the idiot U.S. President meets Harry Truman in A Christmas Carol tour of hell? I scrounged for a big fat citation that works on its own, but I kept wanting to build a frame, set a stage, and ended up with this instead, a “review,” a recommendation. A stage setting.  Of course, Ishmael Reed’s novels create their own stages, their own contexts and rhythms, and each paragraph, each sentence, each note fits into that context, blaring or humming or blasting the reader. Reed’s satire is simultaneously bitter and salty and sweet and sharp sharp sharp, the sort of strange rich dish you gobble up too fast and then, Hell!, it gives you weird dreams. For months.

But nice fat slices of Reed’s prose rest can well on their own, as John Leonard’s 1982 NYT  review of The Terrible Twos shows. Leonard’s review is ten paragraphs long and he quotes Reed in full for two of those paragraphs, including this one, the longest paragraph in the piece:

Two-year-olds are what the id would look like if the id could ride a tricycle. That’s the innocent side of 2, but the terrible side as well. A terrible world the world of 2-year-olds. The world of the witch’s door you knock on when your mother told you not to go near the forest in the first place. Pigs building houses of straw. Vain and egotistic gingerbread men who end up riding on the nose of a fox. Nightmares in the closet. Someone is constantly trying to eat them up. The gods of winter crave them – the gods of winter who, some say, are represented by the white horse that St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, rides as he enters Amsterdam, his blackamoor servant, Peter, following with his bag of switches and candy. Two-year-olds are constantly looking over their shoulders for the man in the shadows carrying the bag. Black Peter used to carry them across the border into Spain.

Leonard (who describes the paragraph as “a kind of jive transcendence”— I’ll settle for “transcendence”) offers up this nugget as a condensation of Reed’s themes and mythologies. The paragraph neatly conveys the central idea of Reed’s novel, that American capitalism refuses to allow its subjects to Grow Up. It’s a tidyish paragraph. Tidyish. Reed always sprawls into some new mumbo jumbo. The anarchic energy of his prose digs up old mythologies, boots skeletons out closets, and makes all the old ghosts of Western history sing and dance.

So there’s a lot going in The Terrible Twos’ not-quite 200 pages. Should I take a stab at unjumbling the plot? Okay, so: Reagan is elected president. Things are bad. Rough for, like, the people. Fast forward a few terms, to the early/mid-nineties (Reed’s future…this is a sci-fi fantasy). Former fashion model Dean Clift ascends to the Presidency. Only he’s just a puppet for his cabinet, a cabal of war-profiteering zealots secretly planning a genocidal operation that would not only destroy a nuclear-armed African nation, but also “rid America of surplus people.” Surplus = poor. After Clift’s wife dies in a freak (not-really-freak) Christmas-tree-lighting accident, his life changes, and Saint Nicholas (like, the real Santa) comes to visit him. Santa takes the President on a Dantean-cum-Dickensian trip through the hell of American past. The poor dumb idiot President transforms his soul. Hearing Truman lament the bombing of Hiroshima might do that (not that that’s the only horror that haunts this novel—but a nuclear winter is not a winter wonderland, and Reed’s characters, despite their verve, are all suffering from Cold War Blues). Clift goes on TV and advocates a Christmas Change—but too late. The conspiracy cabinet hits him with the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Reed gives a history lesson to the highest office of the land, changes the man’s life, and then imprisons him in a sanatorium. Satire at its cruelest.

But hell, what am I doing here, foregrounding President Clift? Or even Santa? There’s so much more going on in The Terrible Twos: the secret sect of Nicolites who worship Saint Nick; devotees of Black Peter (a version of the Dutch tradition of “Zwarte Piet”); the North Pole syndicate; secret agents, thugs, and sundry assassins; punk rioters; a rasta dwarf (um, Black Peter). And somehow I’ve left out the novel’s semi-hapless hero, Nance Saturday…

Look, the plot—the picaresque, mumbo-jumbo, always-mutating plot of The Terrible Twos is, yes, fun—but it’s the prose, the energy, the commentary, and, yes, the prescience of the novel that makes it so engrossing and fun and terrifying. This is a book that begins: “By Christmas, 1980, the earth had had enough and was beginning to send out hints,” a book that has the American President meeting with the American Nazi Party in the Oval Office, a book that has one character comment to another, on the election of Reagan, that “It feels good to be a white man again with him in office.” The satire’s prescience is painful, but Reed’s wisdom—the ballast of this ever-shifting picaresque—anchors the commentary in a deeper condemnation: It has always been this way. Ishmael Reed seems so prescient because we keep failing the past. Same as it ever was. Thus The Terrible Twos plays out in a series of plots and schemes, retaliations and riots—but also wry comments and righteous resistance. And so if Reed’s analysis of American history is unbearably heavy, it also points towards a negation of that heavy history, towards a vision of something better.

I shall give the last words to Reed’s Santa:

Two years old, that’s what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn’t bring me this and why didn’t Santa bring me that…Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the snow and we say that’s tough. We say too bad to the children who don’t have milk….I say it’s time to pull these naughty people off their high chairs and get them to clean up their own shit. Let’s hit them where it hurts, ladies and gentlemen. In their pockets. Let’s stop buying their war toys, their teddy bears, their dolls, tractors, wagons, their video games, their trees. Trees belong in the forest.

A riot ensues.

Very highly recommended.

 

Bowles/Oyono/Reed (Books acquired, 30 May 2017)

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A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art (Ishmael Reed)

I the Father which wert in heaven conjure and command thee

O Legba master of the crossroads to connect this cowboy’s circuit to Guinea and summon forth:

Cousin Zaka who will parch their fields and slaughter their livestock and make their herd winding up the Chisholm stumble into a Twilight Zone

O Gu rust their fire firearms and cause their horseshoes to slip off the animals’ hooves

O Judas Iscariot who ratted on the Ghoul give me the treachery to turn this town upside down and spill evil from all its pockets

O Jack Johnson give me the power to rise for the bell until Yellow Back Radio is down for the count

O Doc John, Doc Yah Yah and Zozo Labrique Marie Laveau the Grand Improvisers if I am not performing these rites correctly send the Loa anyway and allow my imagination to fill the gaps

O Mack Hopson blood of my blood teach me the secret of the 12 rabbits and the cheesecake

O Baron-La-Croix grip Drag Gibson so that every other day last rites will be requested

O Johnny of the delicate feet

Red-Eyed Ezili

Marinette of the dry arm send the dead swiftly to make my vengeance so complete and artsy craftsy that I though an amateur will be admired by houngans the world over

O General Dig, bury Drag Gibson in the stomach of swines next to George allace

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

A hoo doo spell/curse/prayer from Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.

Americans love being conned (Ishmael Reed)

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It was Bo Shmo and the neo-social realist gang. They rode to this spot from their hideout in the hills. Bo Shmo leaned in his saddle and scowled at Loop, whom he considered a deliberate attempt to be obscure. A buffoon an outsider and frequenter of sideshows.

Bo Shmo was dynamic and charismatic as they say. He made a big reputation in the thirties, not having much originality, by learning to play Hoagland Howard Carmichael’s “Buttermilk Sky” backwards. He banged the piano and even introduced some novel variations such as sliding his rump across the black and whites for that certain effect.

People went for it. It was an all the newspapers. He traveled from coast to coast exhibiting his ass and everything was fine until the real Hoagland Howard Carmichael (the real one) showed up and went for Bo Shmo’s goat. He called him a lowdown patent thief and railed him out of town. You would think that finding themselves duped, the impostor’s fans would demand his hide. Not so, Americans love being conned if you can do it in a style that is both grand and entertaining. Consider P.T. Barnum’s success, Semple McPherson and other notables. A guy who rigs aluminum prices can get himself introduced by Georgie Jessel at 100 dollars a plate but stealing a can of beer can get you iced.

So sympathetic Americans sent funds to Bo Shmo which he used to build one huge neo-social realist Institution in the Mountains. Wagon trains of neo-social realist composers writers and painters could be seen winding up its path.

From Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, which I am loving the hell out of.

Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid (Ishmael Reed)

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Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid. A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bullwhacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women. A desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.

A terrible cuss of a thousand shivs he was who wasted whole herds, made the fruit black and wormy, dried up the water holes and caused people’s eyes to grow from tiny black dots into slapjacks wherever his feet fell.

Now, he wasn’t always bad, trump over hearts diamonds and clubs. Once a wild joker he cut the fool before bemused Egyptians, dressed like Mortimer Snerd and spilled french fries in his lat at Las Vegas’ top of the strip.

Booted out of his father’s house after a quarrel, whores snapped his heels and trick dogs did the fandango on his belly. Me called him brother only to cop his coin and tell malicious stories about his cleft foot.

Born with a caul over his face and ghost lobes on his ears, he was a mean night tripper who moved from town to town quoting Thomas Jefferson and allowing bandits to build a flophouse around his genius.

A funny blue hippo who painted himself with water flowers only to be drummed out of each tribe dressed down publicly, his medals ripped off.

Finally he joined a small circus and happily performed with his fellow 86-D—a Juggler a dancing Bear a fast talking Barker and Zozo Labrique, charter member of the American Hoo-Doo Church.

Their fame spread throughout the frontier and bouquets of flowers greeted them in every town until they moved into that city which seemed a section of Hell chipped off and shipped upstairs, Yellow Back Radio, where even the sun was afraid to show its bottom.

The opening paragraphs of Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.

Three Books (or, My three favorite reading experiences in 2015)

These were my three favorite (?!) reading experiences in 2015:

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Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. 1973 first edition trade paperback by Viking. Cover design and illustration by Marc Getter.img_1218

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. First Vintage Contemporaries edition, trade paperback, 1998. Cover design by Carol Devine Carson.

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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. 1978 mass market paperback by Bard Books, a division of Avon Books. No designer or illustrator credited.

One of the better autobiographical notes I’ve ever read

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One of the better autobiographical notes I’ve read. This comes from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. E (8th ed.); my copy of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down unfortunately doesn’t actually include this note.

That’s the definition of racism and prejudice (Ishmael Reed)

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Ishmael Reed, in a 1994 interview with Monica Valencia originally published in The Daily Californian and later republished in Conversations with Ishmael Reed.

Riff on recent reading

I can’t seem to muster language lately, to make the words do what I want them to do.

I’ve read a number of excellent (or really good) books in the past few months and haven’t been able to write more than the first few sentences of an ostensible “review” before giving up…mostly because those first few sentences usually resemble the kind of boring moaning dithering whining I’m doing now.

There were the two red books by Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>.  BLCKDGRD sent them to me back in September and I wolfed them down. Autobiography is the superior volume (which is saying something because Red Doc> is grand stuff too). What is it? What is Autobiography of Red? A novel? A poem? A history? An essay? Shall I get bogged down in description? No? Instead, let me be clear:

What I want to think/feel when I read is, How is this possible? How is this allowed?

–which is what I thought/felt reading Autobiography of Red.

From Autobiography of Red:


What else, what else?

Okay, so after the Carson I did manage a review Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy novel The Buried Giant—why did a review come out so much easier than anything on Carson, or, say, The Free-Lance Pall Bearers by Ishmael Reed (which I read after the Ishiguro)? Ishiguro’s book was familiar territory, fairly easy to describe—the Carson novel-poems and Reed’s picaresque performance are wholly different animals than the conventional novel.

The Free-Lance Pall Bearers by Ishmael Reed is, I hate to say, dazzling. I know what a lazy term that is, but the novella is just that—it dazzles. It zips. It zings and zounds and skips and scatters, and just when you think you have a handle on its allegorical outlines, it sticks out its tongue and jeers at you. The Free-Lance Pall Bearers is a mirthful and merciless satire on the USA written in a howling vernacular and set in an outhouse. It’s abject, picaresque, volatile, hysterical (in several of the senses of that word). I will relieve myself from summarizing the plot and instead offer this image of its perfect epigraphs:


Okay and so then I read Joanna Walsh’s collection Vertigo. The stories here hum together, evoking consciousness—consciousness’s anxieties, desires, its imaginative consolations. It deserves a full proper review (or just take my word and buy it from The Dorothy Project), but in the meantime, a wonderful passage from “Half the World Over”:


I also read two more by Le Guin: Rocannon’s World (I hope to have an exchange on it with the novelist Adam Novy posted some time in the not-too-distant future), The Dispossessed, which I’ve read three times.

Also: Paul Kirchner’s The Bus 2, which, again, full review in the not-so-far-off-future. But until then, a sample:

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Three Books

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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. 1978 mass market paperback by Bard Books, a division of Avon Books. No designer or illustrator credited. I picked this copy up after giving away the edition I read this summer. An amazing novel.
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Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by Ishmael Reed. 1977 mass market paperback by Bard Books, a division of Avon Books. No designer or illustrator credited—but the cover illustration seems to be signed “Andrew Rhodes.” Haven’t read this one yet.IMG_0549The Free-Lance Pallbearers by Ishmael Reed. 1969 mass market paperback by Bantam Books. No designer or illustrator credited. I finished this last week—a slim, strange, dazzling work.

Ishmael Reed (Book acquired, 8.20.2015)

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I love love love the cover of this Ishmael Reed mass market paperback Bantam edition of The Free-Lance Pallbearers. image

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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From top to bottom:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass

So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:

Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):

…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…

There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…

I’ll try to muster more.

Cess, Gordon Lish

AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.

The Spectators,Victor Hussenot

Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.