Academic journal article MELUS

African American Deconstruction of the Novel in the Work of Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major

Academic journal article MELUS

African American Deconstruction of the Novel in the Work of Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major

Article excerpt

Reenacting a mid-twentieth-century debate between the Marxists and the American New Critics, scholars of African American writing during the 1960s and '70s often disputed the relative importance of attending to a work's content, as opposed to its form. More recently, disagreements have centered on the appropriateness of critics' using contemporary theoretical models associated with Europe to help understand and interpret African American texts.(1) At once above and central to these debates are the compositions of those African American writers whose works deconstruct the novel as genre. Critics may argue which tendencies constitute the heart (and soul) of African American writing, but fictions indisputably exist which, to quote Henry Louis Gates, "simultaneously critique both the metaphysical presuppositions inherent in Western ideas and forms of writing and the metaphorical system in which the 'blackness' of a writer and his [or her] experiences as a writer have been valorized as a 'natural' absence" ("Blackness" 297). Foremost among the contemporary African American writers who have undertaken this project in a concerted, ongoing manner are Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major. Both, in quite different ways, have produced important, rigorously anti-illusionistic works which, in giving new freedom, direction, and shape to black cultural reality, have undermined bourgeois concepts and structural traditions which for centuries have defined "the novel."

Ishmael Reed's self-conscious use of form is as noticeable as it is distinctive. His writing is pun-packed and moves to a variety of jazz and blues rhythms; the cinema informs his quick-splice scene changes; a metafictional impulse plays lightly through his tales; exuberant parody abounds; and purposeful anachronism penetrates his reader's defenses. Reed's literary canon is permeated by his unique blend of the verbal and visual, prosaic and poetic, old and new, fictive and factual, serious and satiric, African and American, traditional and popular. "I think the linear novel is finished," he remarked in 1978. "As a matter of fact, I don't think we're going to can [books that are normally referred to as novels] 'novels' anymore - that is a name that is

imposed on us.... I would call mine a 'work'" (Northouse interview 229).

Reed's deconstruction of the novel as genre is implicit in his first book-length fiction, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967),(2) but with the publication of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down two years later, his deconstructionist project assumed the status of a plot element. In Yellow Back, which he described in 1974 as "the dismantling of a genre done in an oral way like radio" ("The Writer as Seer" 25), Reed, in a complex act of signification, inverts thematic patterns characteristic of the traditional Western, toys with the form of the subgenre, and exposes the racist assumptions of Western "civilization," of which the novel itself is very much a part.

The protagonist of Yellow Back is the Loop Garoo Kid, a black cowboy whose name associates him with the loup-garou of folklore (figurally, one endowed with the ability to metamorphosize(3)). Loop's actions, in turn, associate him with the New Orleans "Work," hoodoo.

"Born with a caul over his face and ghost lobes on his ears, he was a mean night tripper..." (9). As the book opens, Loop is in the company of "New Orleans Hoodooine" Zozo Labrique (14), a woman cast out of her native Louisiana by the famed Marie Laveau. Members of a circus troupe, players, Loop and Zozo arrive in Yellow Back Radio, a small town which has been taken over by the local children, who have banished their parents. Enter the villain, land baron Drag Gibson, who rides in with his horde, murders Zozo and the children, and returns merciless, delimiting "order" to a region which had, temporarily, been relieved from the crush of "civilization."

Scenes within this and subsequent sections of the novel are separated by two adjacent circles: one "filled in" black and the other "empty," white. …

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