Ishmael Reed's Inductive Narratology of Detection

By Ludwig, Sami | African American Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Ishmael Reed's Inductive Narratology of Detection


Ludwig, Sami, African American Review


A Narratology of Free Voices

Words walking without masters. (qtd. in Gates, Signifying 215) Pallbearers did not read like Henry James. (Chapple 18)

A salient feature of Reed's chaotic-seeming narratology is the fact that he presents voices in an unmediated way, which forces upon the reader the task of performing an act of narratological induction, of recognizing "Who speaks?" This procedure, which is quite the opposite of the traditional sorting out and establishing of a hierarchical system of narratological levels, can be traced back to animistic practices of the kind Reed presents in his Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic. In Voodoo, rather than starting out from given notions of origin and authority, one is first confronted with particular cases of possession by a voice and must then infer the cause; the animistic strategy is one of recognizing the loas, the Voodoo gods. This attitude is generalized and modernized in Reed's appropriation of the genre of the detective story and in the "metaphysical detection" of his principal protagonist PaPa LaBas. As a strategy, it may actually help one to better cope with a postmodern world of simulacra. Moreover, the particular qualities of ancestor worship can explain the figurative circularity of such a non-essentialist inductive strategy of identifying forces.

One of the most striking aspects of Reed's style is the complex focalization patterns of his narrative. The way in which he deals with focalizers and avoids the hierarchical straight-jacket of authorial control confronts the reader with a confusing array of "voices" that somehow speak for themselves. Reed's fictional practice goes beyond the system of definitions provided by traditional literary theories of narratology and focalization: The notion of "free indirect discourse,"(1) for example, cannot in a satisfactory way explain the way Reed combines narration and focalization. Somehow his focalizers turn from mere media or filters into independent sources of information or narrators in their own right. Actually, in many instances, focalization in the sense of mediation is abolished. This can be shown in a scene in Mumbo Jumbo in which Reed's protagonist/hero PaPa LaBas is in court, defending himself against harassment by the "Manhattan Atonists"(2):

PaPa LaBas is a descendant of a long line of people who made their pact with nature long ago. He would never say, "If you've seen 1 redwood tree, you've seen them all"; rather, he would reply with the African Chieftain, "I am the elephant," said long before Liverpool went on record for this. The reply was made when a Huxley had the nerve to warn him about the impending extinction of the elephant - an extinction which Huxley's countrymen were precipitating in the 1st place.

(Freud would read this as "a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole," which poor Freud "never experienced," being an Atonist, the part of Jealous Art which shut out of itself all traces of animism. When Freud came to New York in 1909 LaBas sought him out to teach him The Work; but he couldn't gain entrance to the hotel suite, which was blocked by ass-kissers, sycophants, similar to those who were to surround Hitler and Stalin later, telling the "Master" what they wanted him to hear and screening all alien material meant for their master's attention. They had told LaBas to take the back elevator even though some of them prided themselves on their liberalism. 42 Professors from New York University or people from Columbia University.) (The 1909 versions of Albert Goldman, the "pop" expert for Life magazine and The New York Times who in a review of a record made by some character who calls himself Doctor John [when the original Doctor John was described by New Orleans contemporaries as a "huge Black man . . . , a Sen[e]galese Prince . . .] made some of the most scurrilous attacks on the VooDoo religion to date - I. R.)(*) Humiliated, PaPa LaBas had left the hotel, the laughter of these men behind him.

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