Ishmael Reed's third novel, Mumbo Jumbo (1972) is generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece. Complex, enigmatic, and ecstatic, it is impossible to summarize coherently with any brevity. Combining elements of collage, Marx Brothers movies, and film noir, illustrated histories, occult books, and the recombinant techniques of jazz improvisation, the novel seems as resistant to complete interpretation, to the extraction of all its “flavors,” as a gumbo, that cross-cultural culinary achievement constituting Reed's favorite metaphor for an aesthetic capable of unlimited possibilities and rewards.
The main action takes place in the 1920s, the Jazz Age and time of the Harlem Renaissance when the Negro was “in vogue,” but also, significantly, the age of Prohibition. Jes Grew, a “psychic plague” that threatens to free people from their inhibitions, is seeking its Text, the matrix that will give it legitimacy, while the Wallflower Order, agents of the forces of repression, strive to save “civilization as we know it”—that is, white, right, and uptight—from Jes Grew's positive vibrations. Working in this environment of clashing impulses, Papa LaBas, a hoodoo detective, attempts to trace the missing Text and at the same time outwit the crusaders who are out to destroy it and thereby dissipate Jes Grew.
Reed adopts Nietzsche's vision of human history as a pendulum movement between opposing tendencies symbolized by the Greek gods Apollo (reason) and Dionysus (emotion), but Reed traces this polarity back to ancient Egypt—anterior to Greece—and the conflict between Osiris (the Egyptian Dionysus) and his brother/adversary Set, whom Reed sees as unnatural and obsessed with control. Jes Grew clearly is Osirian/Dionysian, while Set/Apollo are the progenitors of Jes Grew's eternal enemy, Atonism (named after the monotheism of the pharaoh Akhenaton), which in the novel represents rigid singularity of vision and belief, hostility to Nature, and a relentless drive to dominate. The struggle, as Reed portrays it, is one of puritanism versus paganism, knowledge versus “mumbo jumbo,” the self-styled “universalism” of Western civilization versus the supposedly parochial cultures of the “underdeveloped” peoples of the world.
In an essay in Obsidian (Spring–Summer 1986), Lizabeth Paravisini discusses Mumbo Jumbo as a parody of the detective novel, in which crimes are solved by rational processes of investigation, whereas Papa LaBas employs “ldquo;knockings” and astral procedures. But in a 1991 doctoral dissertation dealing with “detective undercurrents” in the work of several black novelists, Helen Mary Lock asserts that the story of Osiris provides the mythic framework for the African American detective tale, whose purpose is not to reveal “whodunit,” but how to undo it. Mystery, moreover, is embraced, rather than dispelled. In this reading, Mumbo Jumbo fits into the tradition of the African American detective novel, which begins with Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure-Man Dies (1932). In Mumbo Jumbo, the “conjure-man,” Papa LaBas, lives and continues to fight the good fight against anti–Jes Grew forces, including the “crabs-in-a-barrel” syndrome found in Reed's next novel, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974).
Darryl Pinckney (New York Review of Books, 12 Aug. 1989) calls Mumbo Jumbo Reed's “most ambitious” book, though Theodore O. Mason, Jr., in Modern Fiction Studies (Spring 1988), argues that Reed's elaborate intentions get the better of him. Acknowledging that it has flaws, Houston A. Baker Jr., nevertheless considers Mumbo Jumbo a work of genius (Black World, Dec. 1972). In fact, the book's appeal has been broad, as evidenced by the fact that it is on traditional scholar Harold Bloom's list of works that deserve inclusion in the Western literary canon, in addition to being one of the significant items in pop critic Nelson George's “Chronicle of Post-Soul Black Culture.”