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Fran Ross, Like a Boss

In her foreword to the first reissue of Fran Ross’s Oreo, Harryette Mullen writes, “With its mix of vernacular dialects, bilingual and ethnic humor, inside jokes, neologisms, verbal quirks, and linguistic oddities, Ross’s novel dazzles by deliberately straining the abilities of its readers, as if she wrote for an audience that did not yet exist.” Mullen published that judgment in the year 2000; Oreo originally appeared in 1974. Now, in 2015, the book is being reissued again, this time with an introduction by Danzy Senna. Will Oreo finally find an audience?

I’m not sure—but I hope so. I discovered the novel by reading Dwight Garner’s review of it last month in the Times. (Garner’s verdict: “It may have been first published more than 40 years ago, but its time is now.” Mat Johnson said much the same thing on NPR several years ago.) I also recently saw Ross mentioned in a listicle titled “Ten Great Writers Nobody Reads.” (A perfect example of the backhanded compliment, that.) I finished the novel a few days ago and immediately made room for it on the syllabus of my upcoming Contemporary American Comic Fiction course. I’m excited to reread it, excited to hear what my students make of it.

My guess: They’ll often be puzzled. I know I was. The book offers complex math equations, punning allusions to Greek mythology, and lots of Yiddish. It ends with a Latin phrase that I had to look up. And yet I can’t remember the last time I read a novel that made me laugh out loud as often as Oreo did. At times I was laughing at Ross’s jokes, which are alternately deadpan (“Jacob Schwartz Box Company: If It Has to Be Carried, It Needs a Box”) and loopy (a pachysandra is described as “a plant and not an elephant seer whom no one believed”). At other times, I was laughing at her audacity—her formal audacity (the sudden appearance of a five-page menu, with choices including, for instance, “insalata di pomodori” and “COLESLAW MURRAY”) and her narrative audacity (a near-rape scene that turns into a round of pimp-pummeling). I laughed at her “word about weather”: “There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.” And I laughed at this semi-random exclamation: “Chicken shit my Aunt Minnie!”

The plot of the novel almost doesn’t matter, as Ross’s chief interest lies in the topsy-turvy nature of language. (She would surely agree with Iris Murdoch: “Language is a comic form, and makes jokes in its sleep.”) Here’s the quickest of recaps: Christine “Oreo” Clark is the daughter of a black woman and a Jewish man. Her father goes missing when she’s quite young. She grows up in Philadelphia and then, in her mid-teens, travels to New York to look for her father. She’s called “the heroine” of the novel, but she’s really more of a super-heroine; when threatened, she employs “the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” Her many adventures track (kinda, sorta) with those of the mythical Greek unifier-king Theseus. She visits a campground, a recording studio, a brothel, a pet store, a sperm bank. “A Key for Speed Readers, Non-Classicists, Etc.” follows the narrative: it pairs the novel’s characters with their mythical analogues. (My favorite entry: “Procrustes — Manager of Kropotkin’s Shoe Store.”) Comic incongruity—between the contemporary world and the world of myth, between Southern black vernacular and academese, between men and women, between the young and the old—flashes on every page.

But here’s what I keep returning to: The pleasure of reading Ross is bound up with the feeling that she’s writing almost entirely for her own enjoyment. She’s making jokes that only she can make and (at times, I think) only she can understand. She’s refusing any mantle that might be placed upon her as a young black female novelist in the 1970s. Jesse McCarthy, in a recent review of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, includes Ross among the black comic novelists who “find themselves in a perpetual search of an audience—not because of lack of talent, but for the inexplicable reason that readers seem unwilling to have a ‘conversation’ or ‘more dialogue’ about race unless it is entirely sober, mostly cant, and, to judge by the state of things, perennially superficial. That’s unfortunate, because the novel has always been a good vehicle for dissecting the rhetorical essentialisms and mental shortcuts we live by.”

Oreo is Ross’s only novel; she died of cancer at age fifty. We could’ve used more of her dissections, more of her jagged laughter. She strikes me as suis generis—but, as I mentioned, I’ll be teaching her soon, and, as we know, professors like to connect things to other things. In Danzy Senna’s new introduction to Oreo, she writes, “At every turn, the novel embraces ambiguity. Its quest-driven plot is diverted by wordplay and meta-references to itself. In many ways, it feels . . . in line stylistically and aesthetically with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. . . .” I’ll try to track that lineage in my next post.

Fran Ross