This felt like a great short story idea that became over-bloated with extraneous tangents. Reed is clearly a very smart and well-educated author with a lot to say about culture and race, but this reader felt that this book was over zealous in its effort to weave a tapestry of European history with African arts. I will say Mumbo Jumbo was entertaining with a tongue-in cheek self-aware satiric voice, but it didn’t really add much to my worldview, nor did I appreciate it as high art. What annoyed me most was the insertion of random pictures that had very little to do with the context of the narrative. These extraneous pictures detracted from the text and therefore belittled the themes discussed throughout the novel – it was as though each picture had great meaning to Reed and they were inserted as an inside joke to create an aura of high art while only landing flat.
And what of the novel’s theme? I indicated above that this was a great short story idea and I said this because I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters 51 and 52 that catalog the development of music and dancing in Egypt by the black African. These chapters depict music as a form of celebration and worship with a meaning that has long been lost as the lighter skinned conquerors, represented first by the Egyptians, then Moses, then Europeans, stole the African art-form while destroying their heritage, symbolized in “the book” that was destroyed as conquerors pillaged and burned the written history of the African people. This novel historical perspective is the seed for the book’s action that mostly takes place in 1920’s America as a mysterious disease “Jes Grew” began spreading throughout the United States, causing its victims to dance and jitterbug while a secret society searches for “the book” that was being refabricated to give credit to the African origins of music and culture.
Towards the end of the novel (chapters 51 and 52) the mumbo jumbo seems to come together, but the path to this nice closing is a little bumpy with an uncertain narrative voice. The novel doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and this is reflected in the following quote:
“…a black pragmatist can choose to be anything he chose to be. Why, that was freedom wasn’t it?”