Crossing Western Space, or the HooDoo Detective on the Boundary in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo

Article excerpt

Following the publication of Mumbo Jumbo in 1972, Ishmael Reed proclaimed it "the best mystery novel of the year" (Shrovetide 132). Reed's statement, of course, seems out of place given that Mumbo Jumbo looks nothing like a conventional detective novel. A "composite narrative composed of subtexts, pre-texts, post-texts, and narratives-within-narratives" (Gates 220), Mumbo Jumbo even includes such oddities as pictures, footnotes, and a bibliography. But despite its unique appearance, the central narrative, among the novel's various intra-texts, does, in fact, include both a detective, PaPa LaBas, and his classic search for both a murderer as well as a missing text, reminiscent of Poe's "Purloined Letter." As Mumbo Jumbo opens, a "a psychic epidemic" known as Jes Grew is "creeping" across 1920s' America. Although Reed takes the term Jes Grew from James Weldon Johnson (who wrote that "'the earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, 'jes' grew' " (qtd. in Mumbo 11), (1) he traces it as far back as an ancient Egyptian da nce craze that reemerges in New Orleans in the 1890s, a "flair-up" which authorities thought they had neutralized by fumigating the Place Congo. But they misunderstood the nature of Jes Grew--which Western science cannot even "bring into focus or categorize" (40)--and now it is back again, sparking the Harlem Renaissance, and has its carriers, or J.G.C.s, literally dancing in the streets. Alarmed by these developments, Jes Grew's enemies the Atonists call out their military wing the Wallflower Order to "defend the cherished traditions of the West" (15). Jes Grew is spreading for a reason: "Jes Grew is seeking its words. Its text" (6). "It must find its Speaking or strangle on its own ineloquence" (34); however, where and what exactly this text is remains a mystery, the central mystery of the novel.

Ironically, the text Jes Grew seeks has come to America in the hands of an Atonist, Hinckle Von Vampton, or H.V.V.--a caricature of Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten--who decides to send "it out as a chain book" to "14 J.G.C. individuals scattered throughout Harlem" (69). Unknown to H.V.V., one of the 14 J.G.C.s collects and gives the anthology to the black Muslim Egyptologist Abdul Hamid to translate. Anticipating the completion of Abdul's work, Jes Grew is on its way to New York, where it will "cohabit" with its text-unless the Atonists get to the Text first; as the Atonists see it, the only way to stop J.G. is to destroy the Text that it seeks. Consequently, H.V.V. and his partner Hubert Safecracker Gould pay a visit to Abdul, demanding he surrender the Text, and when Abdul refuses, they murder him. As fate, or convention, would have it, LaBas discovers the body along with a clue, a cryptic note from Abdul. LaBas has "the nagging suspicion...[the note] has something to do with the missing antholo gy" (131). It reads: "Stringy lumpy; Bales dancing / Beneath this center / Lies the Bird" (98). Clue in hand, LaBas, thus, begins his classic search for both the murderers as well as the location of the missing text.

But while Mumbo Jumbo has all the makings, Reed's novel is no conventional piece of detective fiction. It is, rather, a metaphysical detective story which evokes the "impulse to 'detect' ... in order to violently frustrate it" (Spanos 171). Nor is Reed's detective a conventional sleuth. (2) Unlike his literary forerunners, who relied on ratiocination and science, LaBas is "a jack-legged detective of the metaphysical" (212), "a private eye practicing. . . NeoHooDoo therapy" (211). In an obvious transgression of the Western detective genre, LaBas does not depend solely on scientific reason or concrete evidence to explain away mystery; to the contrary, he preaches turning "to mystery, to wonderment," or in the Voodoo tradition, to the loas. (3) LaBas's very name, in fact, is taken from the African deity Legba and his Haitian incarnation PaPa Legba, a trickster figure who mediates between the spiritual and material worlds. …