Oreo at Play

[The following is a book review of a novel that had spent years on my list of “Books I Need to Find” before I finally got a hold of a copy. I attempted to send this book review out for publication, but there simply is not a magazine that is interested in reviews of books published earlier than current or recent publication. I take rejections as permission to post the rejected item to my blog, since if you publish something on your blog most places won’t accept because it.]

Oreo At Play

Fran Ross’ only novel is the prose equivalent to high-spirited free-verse. Rambunctious in structure, playful in style, varied in the parts which build the whole, and clever in one moment after another, the 1974 novel Oreo uses these techniques to explore themes of genuine interest, especially to today’s readers. The approach is not developmental, but fragmented, just as the prose structure that houses those themes, which are about racial identity at first, but as the thematic gimmicks, one-liners, anecdotes and random conversations proliferate, amounting to a collective subject, the theme broadens to be about individuals’ identities and the relationship between acting in those identities, self-consciously aware of the larger cultural context our narrator Christine, the “Oreo” of the title, is acting in.

            The basic premise is a simple quest story: as she comes of age, our hero Christine is setting out from Phili to meet her father, who has been absent from her life, in Manhattan, where Christine has never been. Complicating the path is a series of train and subway rides, visits to individuals’ addresses who share her father’s name (Samuel Schwartz) which Christine finds in a phonebook, a series of miniature episodes which end with a punchline, and a variety of side adventures completely contrived by the protagonist herself.

A further complication: ornamenting the plot is a variety of unplotted anecdotes. A particularly funny, one titled “Football: A Subway Reverie,” is addressed to sports fans by the narrator. The story describes a hypothetical event to make a feminist point about the inability of the anecdote’s unnamed character to participate in the Super Bowl, even though she “loves football with a doomed and touching passion”. The hypothetical female football fanatic runs out onto the Super Bowl field in-medias-res, dressed in gear and is immediately crushed by the male football players, who then eat her and contract salmonella, we are told, and in the punchline which closes the anecdote, the President (Gerald Ford was president at the time of the novel’s publication) helps aid in a cover-up of the feast upon the female football fan, and proclaims football to be “the national sport (and diet)”. This whole hilariously written passage is not more than a page’s worth of text and after it ends the novel resumes where Christine had been before the anecdotal aside. Though the novel is told in a 3rd person narration which keeps us at a strong distance from sympathizing with Christine, the anecdote cannot help but lending itself to the speculation that for a moment Christine had secretly been speaking to us.

            The above is a sampling of Oreo’s bizarre world. Few books are this creative, this clever, and manage so much unusual hybridization of material. Some examples of internal sources which lend themselves to the makeup of the prose’s character are: Christine’s mother Helen, who thinks in equations; Helen’s mother Louise the culinary expert whose recipes pervade the text as much as her foods pervade the story (before Christine leaves on her big adventure, Louise packs Christine a “lunch” to go, which turns out to be duffel bag filled with gourmet meals, which Christine shares with a variety of characters as we meet them along the way); and most fun of all is the unique voices each character has as represented in the dialogue, which is further layered upon by Christine’s occasional “translations” into the vernacular English, as though an entirely other language is being spoken. Two characters’ voices stand out: Louise the grandmother, and Jimmie C., Christine’s brother, who did in fact invent a language and sometimes poses inquiries in singsong.

            The term “Oreo” is not in much usage today, but it was at the time the novel was written, and it seems to have been in some usage also at the time some of its more admiring readers finally read it and eventually gave the novel secondary voices in the hopes eventually more readers will read and see Fran Ross’ comedic genius at play, those readers being novelist Danzy Senna, who’s introduction to the stylish New Directions 2015 paperback, says she read it in the 90’s. The conception of the term outside the novel was, an “oreo” is a “black person” who “acts white”. The novel challenges this view, seeing the term as having more use as being insightful than mocking. In the case of the usage of “oreo,” the term means that Christine’s racial identity is complicated by Christine having a black mother she is raised by, and a white Jewish father who is missing from her life. Christine and Helen’s last name is Clark, but the white Jewish father Samuel’s last name is Schwartz. This name decision is further a challenge to the notions of binary understandings of the east coast’s racial dimension of American culture. Racial taxonomy’s structure is shattered to the same degree which the story’s structure is.

            A further extension of the challenge is that racism is a two-way road. Growing up, Christine’s maternal grandfather James is paralyzed into the shape of “a rigid half swastika,” and the book then has an illustration in the text showing exactly what that would look like, which simply means he is paralyzed not in the shape of a permanently, rigidly seated man, but an antisemitic, permanently, rigidly seated man. A symbolic distinction. The background story we are given is grandpa learned his daughter Helen was marrying a Jew and a blood vessel broke in his brain.

            Oreo is all fun and games but to a purpose. It is not outrageous, but outrageously insightful; not merely playful, but playfully meaningful; not ridiculous, but ridiculously well played. After almost fifty years, just as many novels contemporaneous with Oreo’s publication, there remains nothing quite like it thus far. It is rewarding, and uniquely so. There are conversations which reading Oreo can beget which cannot be gotten from any other novel.

~23 February, 2021

[I liked this book a lot and I plan to incorporate my thoughts on it into larger discussions of Modern American Fiction in future essays and book discussions, because I had a lot of experiences reading this book that simply don’t fit into the confines of an isolated book review.]

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