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 Invisibles

“Every paranoid fantasy, every conspiracy theory, every alleged coverup and government deception, every tabloid crank story you’ve ever heard… Imagine if it all were true?”

Cover to issue 1

This is how Grant Morrison’s Vertigo series The Invisibles explained itself in the first issue of its second volume reboot. (It eventually went through two reboots, three series, and 54 issues in total.) Running from September 1994 to June 2000 (the last issue was meant to coincide with the millennium, but was delayed), it tells the story of a countercultural cell of postmodern revolutionaries attempting to thwart the establishment’s plan to install the “Archon of the Aeon” as King of the World — after which we’ll have “cameras in the head, children with microchips, spin doctors rewriting reality as it happens”, “the infinite deathcamp of tomorrow” — by materialising the Archon into the body of the 200-year-old extradimensional offspring of the British Royal Line and Lovecraftian Things From Beyond, in a battle for “Timeless Freedom or Eternal Control”.

Series 2 first issue, cover by Brian Bolland

In The Invisibles’ world, not only is every conspiracy theory true, but every sort of magic — voodoo, shamanistic, ritual, chaos — works, and overlaps with the most advanced forms of technology. It’s a world of Gnostic engineers, four-dimensional liquid armour and remote-viewing time travel. It’s a world where an alien really was recovered from the Roswell crash, but as well as being a living entity it was also a form of liquid information. It’s a world that revels in all forms of 1990s counterculture — just look at the Day-Glo acid-orange cover to issue 1 — from multicoloured iMacs to Brit-Pop (“They’ve just cloned a sheep!” Morrison declares on one letters page), but also traditional mythology, with typical early stories consisting of interweaving strands, where one character may be relating an Egyptian or Aztec myth, another is undergoing a visionary experience in a separate dimension, while a third is having a bloody fist-fight/gun battle with soldiers, Ciphermen (human beings modified into hive-mind drones, engaging in psychic time-work from deep isolation tanks) or the Gigeresque King-of-All-Pain.

It’s difficult to tell how much its exuberant, sometimes self-referential storytelling style, with so many leaps in time, point of view, and style (some of the final issues are drawn by several different artists with widely different styles, from the cartoonish to the grimly realistic), is just buying into the whole postmodern style of post-80s comics, or is doing the same thing that, say, T S Eliot was doing in The Waste Land — mixing widely disparate fragments into a seemingly indigestible whole because that’s what the world feels like to its creator.

panel from The Invisibles #1, art by Steve Yeowell

I’d say there’s a lot about The Invisibles to link it to what I’ve called ‘crisis literature’ — as in The Waste Land, Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, or Garner’s Red Shift — but where I said that those works often present themselves as intellectual puzzles whilst attempting to present deep emotional trauma, The Invisibles feels like it’s already on the other side of the trauma. Its fractured style is not a case of a creator trying to piece together irreconcilable fragments, but to present a very weird vision in the only way it can be presented. It doesn’t feel like it’s fighting against its own conclusions or presenting them as evidence of despair or horror; The Invisibles is wholly, and joyfully, accepting of its weirdly destabilised world.

In the final issue, Morrison says he was using The Invisibles:

“…to recreate the complete and unabridged sensation of an ‘alien abduction,’ thrill-ride style. I’ve attempted to simulate an initiation into some of the secrets of time and ‘high-magic’ (where ‘simulation’ and ‘reality’ are synonymous, as in the formula Fake It Till You Make It) and create something which not only pays my rent but deprograms the nervous system and unravels the wallpaper.”

Series 2, issue 18, cover by Brian Bolland

That “alien abduction”, relates to an actual experience Morrison had, and which he has related in several places (such as this interview on YouTube (10 minutes)). He only jokingly refers to it as an alien abduction, because, he says, there wasn’t any other context to put it in. A religious mystic would have the vocabulary, but Morrison, raised on pop culture and comics, had to make his own version of the experience, with his own tools.

The last few issues of The Invisibles are so full of about-turns, reinterpretations and jumps in narrative, that it’s quite exhausting, like a deliberate attempt to break the reader’s sense of meaning and reality altogether, and there’s a feeling that what made the series fresh, fast-paced and full of ideas in its early issues has reached a point of exhaustion. Or perhaps that was just the result of my re-reading it all in so short a time.