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

By Swope, Richard | African American Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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


Swope, Richard, African American Review


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?