Even though it is frequent in contemporary fiction, present-tense narration is not easily justified. People and place are no more immediate in present than in past tense; time progresses and spins out, back on itself, and suddenly forward, in any tense. The present tense, maybe, pretends that something is not settled, that the fixity of the past has been surmounted by the possibilities carried along with each moment, now here and already gone. But verbs in any tense could be said to do that also. By convention, the present tense is employed in stage notes, in directions for comic book artists, with the air of an imperative: here is not something that is finished in the writer’s mind, already complete, but something that must be made complete by actor, artist, or, in a work of literature, reader. “Please imagine and set into the past.” There is work to be done. Or, when reading the present-tense narration of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, there is The Work to be done.
That work depends largely in the work of imagining characters, of making the plot move in the head; we participate in the creation of the story, and in so doing, its present tense possesses us. That work is also speculative and inquisitive, the novel itself a story of those tasked with sorting conspiracy from established history, gnosis from orthodoxy, readers are pressed to do the same, to dig back into the American past. Most of all, though, the incompletion of the present tense acknowledges the improvisation of any reading, and in the acknowledgement, sanctions and celebrates it. It leaves room.
The back cover of the most recent edition of the novel, and the note on Reed’s career in its back pages, tells us that Harold Bloom has proclaimed the novel one of the 500 essential works in the “western canon.” On the face of it, Bloom’s pronouncement on the novel is too rich in irony to be true: the novel being an indictment not of the works of art and cultural forms that have been produced in the elusive zone of “the west,” but of the phrase “western civilization” itself and its purveyors of power, and the appropriation it entails. The novel, though, is too sane but to see that “appropriation” is not a simple matter of “us” taking from “them” but a matter of claiming and sequestering as private property, reducing to witless devotion, what ought to be alive and fecund among people.
However, looking beyond the irony, other grounds for Bloom’s appreciation are obvious especially in the novels 52nd and 53rd chapters, which conceive an alternative Biblical history, merging the myths of Egypt and Greece with the Book of Exodus. Here is Bloom’s Gnosticism in full force, the myth-making of Blake, and in the name of an impulse that is, avowedly in the novel, Dionysian. Even John Milton is invoked as an agent of Atonist, those who would seek to set all “at-one,” but also those Christian Europeans whose urge to progress, to spread out over the earth, to run westward, is driven by need to atone, to flee from the “haints” of those they’ve persecuted.
It’s a Manichean opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian that, if it does hope for the victory of the latter, at least hopes for its liberation, that liberation aligned with the liberation of black America’s culture, in the form of recognition and embrace of its creative power and its force for renewal. Harold Bloom, no doubt, saw in it another iteration of the Blakean-Shelleyan-Emersonian sublime, which it very well could be; but the lack of doubt that one imagines in Bloom’s reading is countered by the remarkable quality of doubt that one finds in the novel, and that elevates it. For in the doubt, its characters expressing themselves provisionally, their improvisations susceptible to regret, their theories and hopes liable to alteration, the novel restores to the Gnostic Imagination what its prophets and prostylitizers lack: a human uncertainty, a mild skepticism, in its performance, which is not the same as an uncertainty as to its powers.
LaBas smiles. That Old Work was some Work.
As he and Black Herman approach Black Herman’s auto, Herman turns to PaPa LaBas.
Of course there was the man alternating with the spirit…didn’t you see him jerk from time to time. Jerk his head. Next time you go to a so-called Holiness storefront watch the soloist who is backed up by the choir of ratting tambourines; see if he or she doesn’t jerk her head at a crucial moment “when the Spirit hits her.”
It’s all over the place, isn’t it. I should have known. Different methods. Different signs, but all taking you where you want to go.
The men climb into the car and head from the pier. Then, into Manhattan.
PaPa LaBas thinks to himself as he rides alongside the silent Black Herman, ‘Pherpas I have been insular, as Berbelang said, limiting myself to a Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, not allowing myself to witness the popular manifestations of The Work.’
“I should have known” holds out that the power that the novel sets its sight upon is not as knowable as those in the know would always believe. There is still room; it is not finished. That is true to such power because the power does not claim to be at-one and done.
But the effect of uncertainty as to the nature of The Work is felt most in the novel’s satire: of course this nation and this world are immensely screwed up, even beyond explanation and full reckoning. The conspiratorial sniff at History is a source but not butt of the novel’s humor, since the skepticism it supposes is rewarded with enough occasions when the Atonist, official account is shadowed by what has been forgotten. Satire of this sort cannot know the world for sure, and needs to be prepared to turn on itself, or else it too becomes Aton. But the bedrock of such satire is strengthened in turn: it is only possible because a certainty that there is more to turn up, worse than it first seems, more absurd than is first thought, and that the ultimate plausibility of absurdity justifies the satirical undertaking. The satire is premised on the expansiveness and depth of Rabelaisian comedy, so that the world, however despondent its situation, is not lacking in possibilities for renewal—and trusting that its readers, participating in the incomplete, provisional, present-tense imagination of the text, will find those possibilities at hand beyond it, in acts that continue and deepen what it started (both the discovery of and resistance to the failings of others and the world), without presuming to complete.