Reading Mumbo Jumbo

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Mumbo Jumbo is a novel about writing itself – not only in the figurative sense of the postmodern, elf-reflexive text but also in a literal sense… [It] is both a book about texts and a book of texts, a composite narrative of subtexts, pretexts, posttexts, and narratives within narratives. It is both a definition of afro American culture and its deflation.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Author of The Signifying Monkey

Mumbo Jumbo is Ishmael Reed's third novel and by many critics, it is considered as his best. The novel is about a large set of characters, and in the center there is a neo-hoodoo practicer, Papa LaBas. The book is in fact about the struggle between the Christian Ethics and Afro-American Aesthetics. The book's story is based on this main idea, and it was presented as the struggle over the "Jes' Grew" and the characters' pursuit for key book to it: "The Book of Thoth". As stated above by Gates, Mumbo Jumbo is a significant piece of art in the postmodern literature. With its style and themes, it carries all the important aspects of a postmodern book. If we are to understand why this book has an important place in the American literature we have to study this novel through these aspects: Its style, and more important, the all familiar themes which are taken up through a new vision successfully by Reed. The first aspect that makes Mumbo Jumbo a postmodern novel is its style. First of all Mumbo Jumbo is an experimental novel that actually employs more textbook than novelistic conventions. It contains illustrations, footnotes, and a bibliography. In many pages you can find Reed jump from the main story to a radio reporter's voice and back to the conversation again and places an anagram of the word SATAN in the page:

NATAS(Reed, 33)
Even a poem is placed among the pages of the novel (Reed, 158-159). No one can say that Mumbo Jumbo carries the characteristics of a conventional novel style. Another important sign of postmodernism in literature is the abandonment of strict time lines, sometimes called discontinuous time. Often an author will construct a sequence of events that have no time relationships to each other. In the novel, we see this discontinuous use of time in many places: At one point it talks about how WW (Woodrow Wilson) leaves his hometown and in another section Reed carries us to a bombing scene. But in one point this break in the timeline is very obvious when without any implication of a flashback or anything that warns you that is a reference to the past events, the scene changes and we are carried to the past. On page 44, we see the murder scene of Schlitz "The Sarge" who plans and carries out the bombing murder attempt of Buddy Jackson, days after the bombing which actually took part on page 23. But on page 45, we are introduced to the court scene of Papa LaBas, which would end at the bombing scene when LaBas drives to the bombing scene. The Locomobile with the 2 men and dog occupants moves toward the vicinity of explosion. When they reach it they see people milling about. The fire trucks, police and cars are parked haphazardly about the street. (Reed, 49) The narrative of the book is also significant as a part of its being a postmodernist novel. He does not focus on one single plot or a character and writes a straight story. From point to point voices of the characters jump into or out of the plot, as if they have their own will other than the narrator's. One of the consequences of this kind of narration is the unmediated use of the dialogues. The dialogues are given without any markers. The reader has to figure out for him- or herself who "speaks," who it is that one is reading (or "listening to"):

As soon as Woodrow Wilson enters the office of the Benign Monster holding the .sign, Hinckie Von Vampton starts licking his chops. Yes young man, what can I do for you?
I came about...
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