Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hoodoo Book Club

(Something I'm doing through the folk magic listserve I'm still on, even though some of the regular posters annoy me. I thought I'd try to offer something constructive. We'll see).

The next selection is The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher."Originally published in 1932...(it) is the first known mystery novel written by an African-American." (book jacket cover) Let's say we discuss on June 15th.

This month's book is Last Days of Louisiana Red, by Ishmael Reed

I can tell I've been working in a public library for a long time, because when I re-read this book, I thought: oh no! There are things in here that could REALLY offend some people! I don't think that would have ever occurred to me when I was just a civilian reader.

If it's any consolation, it definitely attacks some of my sacred cows, too. I'm an idealist; an "all you need is love" type; a fan of Antigone as "the epitome of the free spirit against the forces of tyranny." (p. 29) I'm also a woman, but it would be naive to believe that there aren't tensions between the sexes, or that women are blameless in them, just because my conscience happens to be clear on that score.

Despite the sexual material (some of it a bit crude), and the political incorrectness, I do still the book has a sharp satirical humor, and was, in general, funnier than I remembered. For example: "Do you know what the people want? They want lots of blood; monkeys roller-skating; 200 dwarfs emerging from a Fiat, and lots of popcorn - that's what they want." (p. 90) Ha! Another favorite is "Ain't no ontology gone pay our light bill." (p. 73)

It also has a message I like about the place of magico-spirituality in the world: that it's always existed, it will always exist, albeit changing with the times, and the Workers have the choice whether to add to the conflict in the world, or try to heal the problems that create the conflicts.

For those of you who didn't read it, but might be interested some day, the book is largely a satire on the political, racial, and gender movements of the 70s. "Louisiana Red" is the name for the state of anxiety and pointless conflict in modern society. People "inflicting psychological stress on one other," (p. 6) while all the pre-existing problems don't get fixed. It's symbolized as "crabs in a barrel," (p. 140) in which people fight each other rather than working together to benefit everyone.

I love having a name for this concept (and it's kind of odd that there is no real term for this omnipresent state of affairs in public discourse).

In the end, the unpleasant state of Lousiana Red is shown to be the result of a corporation that profits off other people's misery (still a relevant metaphor, thirty years later). Opposed to it are the agents of the Solid Gumbo Works, who are using conjure to effect positive changes. The difference between the two groups is exemplified by the Gumbo Works' cheap cure for cancer, which makes them enemies. "You'd think they'd be glad to have a cancer cure. I don't know how their mind works," one of the characters says (p. 32).

What seems really interesting to me, after reading so much about traditional conjure, is at the end, when the whole organization is disbanded, and the Workers all go underground to quietly carry on the Work. Of course, this is a depiction of the historical state of independent conjure, which existed without any official hierarchy or central leadership, and an explanation for why it might work that way. So "everything the Business required was inside of each Worker...The Workers were dispersing, spreading out across the country, each person responsible for the quality of his or her own craft..." (p. 173)

I wouldn't agree that the accoutrements belong in a museum, as happens in the end, because as long as they work for people, why not use them? But it raises an intriguing question about the ends and the means. If the result is what matters, do people, myself included, sometimes get too hung up on the means? Am I attached to the tools, or to the results?

Anyway, those are my brief thoughts on the book. Thanks for reading, contribute if you want, and next month we can discuss "a Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem," with not one, not two, but basically THREE African-American detectives investigating a murder with magical undertones.

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