Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reckless Eyeballing by Ishmael Reed

He walked out to get the newspaper.  What it carried on the front page woke him: TREMONISHA SMARTS, WELL-KNOWN BLACK PLAYWRIGHT, ACCOSTED BY PSYCHO.  He read the story.  It said that a man dressed in a gray leather  coat, matching beret, and dark glasses had entered Tremonisha Smarts' apartment two nights before, and shaved all of her hair off.  His twisted explanation: this is what the French Resistance did to those women who collaborated with the Nazis.  The man had said that because of her "blood libel" of black men, she was doing the same thing.  Collaborating with the enemies of black men.  Ian blinked and read the story again.

Ishmael Reed's Reckless Eyeballing is set in the New York theater scene, where progressivism is eating itself.  Ian Ball, the protagonist, is a black playwright whose new play, Reckless Eyeballing--about a black man convicted of the title crime against a white woman and put to death--is a cynical ploy to get him off the "sex list," those playwrights whose work is blacklisted by feminists.  But his artistic allies are up in arms over what they see as his betrayal of black men, who are the punching bags of feminist art.  His play is moved to a smaller theater in order to make way for a play rehabilitating Eva Braun.  ("She may be a Nazi whore to sexists like you," a white feminist tells him, "but to many of us, she epitomizes women's universal suffering.")  Meanwhile, a mysterious vigilante dubbed the "Flower Phantom" is attacking female playwrights by shaving their heads.  The climate is toxic:

During the intermission Ball went out into the lobby.  Average everyday normal middle-class people were congratulating him and patting him on the back, while the white feminists stared at him stonily.  He could tell that their black feminist friends had really enjoyed the performance of Ham Hill's defense attorney but wouldn't let on before their white sisters; one came up later and told him so.  The fellas had said that a lot of feminists were okay when you had a one-on-one relationship with them, but when they were around the sisters they'd get all fired up.  The academic black Marxist-Leninists were in one corner sneering, and the black avant-garde members of the audience segregated themselves from the rest of the people in the lobby.  They were standing near the wall, sulking.

At first, it seemed to me that Reed wants to skewer everyone in this universe.  Ian is certainly venal and cynical, and often as sexist as his critics imply, but no one in the novel is far away from being a cartoon.  His mentor, who hasn't written a play in decades, wants to write about the Armenians because Jews have stolen all of his "black material."  It's a satire of how easily progressive factionalism can deteriorate into selfishness and solipsism.

Or is it?  Early in the novel, Ball's director, a Jew named Jim Minsk, is invited to speak at a small Southern college only to be murdered in a bizarre scapegoating ceremony reminiscent of the killings of Jews in medieval Europe.  It's so bizarre, and so out of place (but fun, in a morbid way) that my first thought was that it was a metafictional thing where Reed was creating a scenario as shallow and over-the-top as Ball and his peers might.  (For one thing, it suggests a complete misunderstanding of the way that Evangelical Southerners perceive Jews--which, in my experience at least, is wholly positive, if not always informed.  Something like the faraway admiration with which children regard the tooth fairy.)

But ultimately, I think Minsk's murder is Reed's ominous reminder of who the real villains are.  Late in the novel, Tremonisha Smarts, the black feminist who takes over direction of Ian's play, essentially apologizes for the way she allowed herself to be manipulated by her white feminist allies, the ones who revere Eva Braun.  Even the racist cop, Sergeant O'Reedy, who says things like "[e]verybody knew that all black men did was rape white women," ultimately comes to see himself as an Irishman whose ethnic identity has been co-opted by Anglo forces.  This conclusion seems to take a lot of teeth out of the satire, not to mention being less than generous to women and Irish-Americans.  Far from being "reckless," in the sense of casting a satirical eye everywhere around him, Reed seems (to this WASP, at least--take that how you will) to cast his gaze in one direction, and resort to some easy answers.

No comments: