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.