As a result of our discussions in class, I’ve become increasingly interested in novels that use images or visual language to supplement the text. One of my favorite examples of this (and the subject of this blog post) is Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. Mumbo Jumbo is set in an alternate version of the United States in the 1920s. Like Through the Looking Glass, this world is a reflection of rather than a total deviation from our own world. The world of Mumbo Jumbo is one that is dominated by an organization known as The Wallflower Order, a secret society based on early Christian ideology (details later reveal that The Wallflower Order originally attempted to stamp out the polytheistic religions in Africa thousands of years ago). The ultimate goal of the Wallflower Order is to get rid of “Jes Grew”, a disease that is represented through jazz culture and African American influence. Mumbo Jumbo’s protagonist, Papa LaBas, embarks on a quest to save Jes Grew and destabilize the Wallflower Order. This semi-satiric struggle primarily serves as a parallel to the racial upheaval occurring in the 1970s, when the novel was written (Ishmael Reed has long been a leading Civil Rights activist). Throughout the novel, we are shown various images that accompany the text, attempting to “explain” it, even though at times they serve only to make us even more confused in a novel with an already convoluted and nearly impossible to follow plot.
From the beginning, this is a novel that is defined by the visual. Many scholars have commented on its cinematic quality, with the text even ending with a “freeze-frame”. Beyond this, it also contains a number of images that disrupt the narrative. Some of these are historical photographs of Jazz-Age New York or New Orleans. Others are rough sketches that are difficult to identify. Perhaps the most interesting ones, however, are the ones that play with the novel’s sense of time, with some of them displaying images that hail back to events far before the 20th century, and others show us scenes of racial upheaval that would likely have taken place closer to the time of the novel’s actual publication. There is no explanation for these pictures, and Reed leaves his reader to piece together the meaning behind them. This is yet another element of this novel that seems to deliberately frustrate the reader’s expectations and ability to read and understand the text.
In class, we have discussed the effects of collage as a medium. Mumbo Jumbo uses the principles behind collage not just in how disparate images are woven into the text, but in how it incorporates various different mediums to create a sort of textual collage. As well as the traditional narrative, the novel is interspersed with stage directions, poetry, and transcriptions of historical documents, many of which do not seem to have much to do with the events that take place in the narrative itself.
This technique, as well as the visual nature of the novel, helps resist the reader’s expectations of how text and image are supposed to function. Throughout the course of the story, we are exposed to images, situations, and time periods that we consider to be familiar to us. When they are all woven together like this, however, it becomes something altogether alien to us. The idea behind this is as follows: we think that we are familiar with the history of this country, and of the racial discourse that has taken place for its entire lifespan. Yet when we are shown it as a whole, rather than in fragmented parts, then we are suddenly unable to identify it. The more visual information we are given, the less we understand what we are looking at. More than anything, Mumbo Jumbo sets out to prove that in order to comprehend something, we must first be made aware of how thoroughly unfamiliar with it we are.