Dead Letter Office: Conspiracy, Trauma, and Song of Solomon's Posthumous Communication

By Rothberg, Michael | African American Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Dead Letter Office: Conspiracy, Trauma, and Song of Solomon's Posthumous Communication


Rothberg, Michael, African American Review


3 P.M.

Song of Solomon picks up where Mumbo Jumbo leaves off. That is, in repeating with a difference certain details and motifs of Ishmael Reed's 1972 novel, Toni Morrison signifies upon what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has called one of "the grand works of critical Signification" (238). (1) While the writing of Mumbo Jumbo concludes, we read, at "3:00 P.M." on "Jan. 31st, 1971," Morrison's famous "North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent" sets off from the roof of Mercy Hospital for "the other side of Lake Superior ... [a]t 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February 1931" (Reed 218; Morrison, Song 3). If Morrison sets her watch by Reed's earlier novel, she also rewinds the time back to the early years of the Depression. Yet even in that return to the past, Song of Solomon continues Mumbo Jumbo, a novel that, except for its epilogue, is "set" in a fantastic pastiche of the 1920s. With this opening example, I would like to suggest how an exploration of Song of Solomon and its many intertexts will evoke questions of narrative logic, historical time, and cultural memory. Because it is so densely allusive on so many different levels and in so many different modes, Morrison's novel deserves to be read not only through its numerous intertexts, but also as a commentary on the significance of intertextuality as a literary, historical, and social process.

As her careful but parodic dating suggests, Morrison, like Reed, uses intertextuality to provide an alternative to dominant accounts of history, and, like Reed again, she does so by engaging both with texts of the black Atlantic and with Euro-American currents in Western literary culture. In particular, for my interests, both Song of Solomon and Mumbo Jumbo rewrite Thomas Pynchon's paranoid postmodern quest classic The Crying of Lot 49. (2) On the surface, Morrison's novel seems far from Pynchon's and Reed's work, but in fact they constitute a complex constellation that can lead to a rethinking both of intertextual relations and of intersections among literature, history, and memory. Each novel involves a protagonist's quest for a hidden truth that destabilizes his or her everyday world and turns out to involve coming to terms with some significant, but previously obscure, aspect of the past and its still operative influence on the present. Pynchon's Oedipa sets out to "execute a will" and finds herself searching for proof of an elaborate postal conspiracy that recedes hundreds of years into the past. Reed's PaPa LaBas attempts to understand the wax and wane of the "Jew Grew infection" and ends up seeking the sacred "Text" of black culture and uncovering an epic battle that stretches back to ancient Egypt. Finally, Morrison's Milkman initially sets out after his Aunt Pilate's "inheritance," only to discover that it is not gold that is at stake, but an oral cultural document of familial and communal history.

Despite broad narrative and thematic similarities--and a host of smaller-scale convergences--Morrison's work diverges significantly from the two other texts I have identified. While Reed in Mumbo Jumbo pushes Pynchon's paranoid and conspiratorial logic to the extreme, at once universalizing and shattering it, Morrison takes a different tack. She backgrounds conspiracy in order to explore a related, but significantly different, narrative logic, that of traumatic memory. While critics have in particular read Morrison's Beloved as a literary enactment of trauma, Song of Solomon also offers an opportunity to engage with contemporary legacies of traumatic memory. (3)

Exploring the intersections among these texts takes on particular significance because narratives of conspiracy and trauma have emerged in recent decades as two of the most powerful logics through which the subjects of postmodern U.S. culture register and reflect on history. The two narrative logics are often linked, both in "real life" and in popular culture. In two well-known examples, the trauma of Kennedy's assassination has given birth to rampant paranoid speculation, and Mulder's conspiratorial thinking on The X Files has supposedly been spurred by the traumatic abduction of his sister. …

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