Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.

The Angel of the West Window by Gustav Meyrink

At one time I worked my way through all of Gustav Meyrink’s novels (in Mike Mitchell’s translations, published by Dedalus), and although his first, The Golem (1914), is his most famous, it was his last, and least successful in terms of sales (selling less than 3,000 copies, compared to 220,000 of The Golem, according to this article), that stuck with me.

Published in 1927, The Angel of the West Window tells a dual story. The narrator — unnamed till virtually the last page, when he’s revealed to be one Baron Müller — learns that he is the only surviving descendent of the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and occultist John Dee, when he inherits a sizeable packet of the man’s journals and private papers. Embarking on the task of ordering these papers into some sort of narrative, Müller finds occult elements starting to invade his own life. Dee’s papers describe how, early on in life, he looked into a mirror and found his reflection talking back to him, promising what sounded to be a great future, in which he:

“…shall know neither rest nor repose till the coasts of Greenland, where the Northern Lights glow, shall be conquered… He who holds the Green Land in fief, to him shall the Empire beyond the sea be given, to him shall be given the crown of England!”

Dee immediately makes plans — which include finding a way of making sure the then-Princess Elizabeth would drink a potion to make her fall in love with him, and thus ensure his kingship of England — but finds himself frustrated at every step. Elizabeth, once she is queen, toys with him, agreeing to his plans for an expedition to Greenland only to cancel them a moment later. And though she drops hints that she knows the nature of the potion Dee contrived to have her drink, and occasionally implies that the two of them have some sort of special relationship, she makes no move towards marrying him — in fact, she orders him to wed one of her ladies-in-waiting who clearly hates him.

Meanwhile, a number of peculiar characters enter the narrator’s modern-day (i.e., 1920s) life. Lipotin, a trader in antiquities — whose nickname, Mascee, is oddly the same as that of an antiques pedlar known to John Dee — provides him with a number of occultly significant objects, including a locked Tula-ware puzzle-box and a green-glass mirror, while the Russian Princess Assja Shotokalungin drops by, wanting to buy from him a certain antique spearhead, which she seems sure he owns, even though he doesn’t.

For me, the Dee part of the novel works so much better than the narrator’s. Dee’s story is all about how his promised glories are constantly denied him, and how he turns more and more desperately to the occult, only to meet with a constant cycle of repeated promises, delays, more promises, and ultimate frustration. He enters into a partnership with Edward Kelley, an ex-criminal (his ears have been cut off as punishment for forgery) who provides Dee with a small amount of powder that can turn lead into gold, along with a book that describes how this powder might be used to make the Philosopher’s Stone. But the book is in code, and the pair soon use up their small stock of powder in making the gold they need to continue their studies (and to fund Kelley’s dissolute lifestyle). Kelley, though, can summon the Angel of the West Window, an awesome, otherworldly presence (with something of a demonic air: “the thumb on the right hand pointed downwards, it was the left hand thumb”) that promises to teach Dee the key to the book’s cipher, though always tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, never today. (It does, when their need is at its most dire, replenish their stock of powder, so they can make more gold, and continue their desperate studies.) Along with Dee’s second wife Jane, the pair leave England for Prague, where Dee wants to see what the Emperor Rudolf II, who claims to be an alchemical adept, can teach him, but Rudolf is paranoid, controlling, and on the edge of madness. Then the Angel of the West Window declares that Dee must share his beloved wife with the lecherous Kelley.

In between reading of Dee’s troubles, the narrator finds himself at the centre of an occult battle for his soul, fought between forces he only gradually comes to understand. On the one hand, there are the Gardeners, a group of enlightened beings who provide the occasional prod on his path to illumination; on the other, there’s the Goddess Black Iaïs, who “rules the realm of anti-Eros, whose power and extent no-one suspects who has not himself been initiated into the mysteries of hate”, and who wants the antique Spearhead of Hywel Dda, once in the possession of John Dee. Despite all this being a clear parallel to Dee’s story, the narrator comes across (to me, anyway) as almost wilfully stupid in being unable to tell what’s happening to him, and as a result, his part of the story seems mostly about him being shunted from one incomprehensible event to another. There’s a lot of occult talk and mysteriously significant events, but no real human-level drama, as there is with the Dee tale, and all of the narrator’s gains feel like something given to him, rather than something he’s earned.

It eventually emerges that the narrator is to experience the fulfilment of what was promised, centuries ago, to his ancestor John Dee. Dee got the nature of that initial promise wrong, interpreting it wholly in terms of worldly gains, when it was meant only in spiritual terms. (“Green Land” is used, in the novel, to refer to the land of the dead, and of the spiritually enlightened, and it was this land that was promised to Dee, not the land of the same name that exists in the material world.) By the end of the book, I found it difficult to accept that the narrator had done anything to earn his spiritual elevation — he’d seemed to learn no lesson, having merely been batted about between occult forces like a spiritual tennis ball that just happened to end up on the right side of the net.

Reviewing The Angel of the West Window in 1936, Jorge Luis Borges called the book “a chronicle of confused miracles, barely salvaged, from time to time, by its poetic ambience”. (Of Meyrink’s literary career as a whole, Borges says: “His books became acts of faith, and then of propaganda.”)

It didn’t, to me, feel that Meyrink was merely peddling some occult system. At times, the supernatural events that happen to either Dee or the narrator felt genuinely weird and shocking (in particular, the pronouncements of Bartlett Greene, with whom Dee shares a prison cell near the start of the novel) rather than being contrived. The best parts — the Dee parts — actually seemed to be all about how, the more enticing the promises of the occult are, the more empty, frustrating, and soul-destroying is their effect. It might have been better simply as Dee’s story, with no modern counterpart, but by the end, despite often tedious passages in which many supposedly significant things were happening but no real meaning emerging, The Angel of the West Window does, nevertheless, work a little literary magic.