Fran Ross’s Oreo has been rightly compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses. No wait, don’t click away! Let me start again, but we’ll come back to Joyce. I first heard about Oreo, originally published in 1974 and reissued last July by New Directions, listening to this On the Media discussion with Danzy Senna, Harryette Mullen, Mark Anthony Neal and Mat Johnson. (Senna’s introduction to the novel was adapted for the New Yorker). “That sounds like fun,” I thought, and it was. Oreo is an episodic re-telling of the Theseus myth, full of erudite wordplay and puns and bawdy jokes. Hence, the comparisons to Joyce. It’s also written by an African-American woman and makes its semi-mythic protagonist a mixed-race teenage girl (the eponymous “Oreo,” real name Christine Clark).
A Joycean tangent: Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, so often functions in online book discussions (and even in print) as a signifier of Dead White Guy literature, high culture, deliberately opaque and exclusionary of the unworthy reader, used as a bludgeon against “lesser” works–genre fiction, books by women and people of color, you name it. But my actual experience of reading Ulysses in a graduate seminar was that it was fun; plumbing its mysteries with my professor and classmates, unpicking its riddles, was play. I would never insist that everyone read Ulysses or that its version of greatness is the only one. But reading Oreo and thinking about what it might owe to Joyce reminded me of the value of sometimes reading books that offer so many riches they exceed our ability to interpret and master them. I rarely laugh out loud when I’m reading, but Oreo made me laugh a lot. Some of it went over my head, but there was still plenty to enjoy. And then I learned and understood and enjoyed more by reading about it. (Rebecca Hussey recently wrote a great piece “On Not ‘Getting It'” that captures this experience).
Oreo also reminded me a lot of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Beatty’s judgement–“hilarious”–is the cover blurb for Oreo): both novels “about” race, and about fathers and children, that hold nothing sacred, packed with wordplay and comedy and satire and outrage. I rarely read books that are so aware of the fact that they are made of language, that bend it and fold it and stretch it, make you conscious of all it can do, instead of using it as a tool to tell a story, mostly trying to make you forget that story is made of words. Here, I saw the words instead of seeing through them.
If that all sounds too weird and experimental and off-putting for you, well, that’s usually me as a reader too. But I enjoyed this departure from my beaten reading path of more conventional narratives. Oreo is much more accessible than Ulysses, despite the fair comparison. Ross provides a key to the Theseus myth in the back “for Speed Readers, Nonclassicists, Etc.” and I was unashamed to avail myself of it. You don’t need to get the details of the classical parallels to enjoy the book, either. What ended up mattering to me about those parallels was the casting of an “outsider” in the role of mythic hero.
Oreo is the kind of character–young, female, black–who is normally vulnerable, a protagonist for whom you may fear. But partway through the book, I realized that she was just going to roll triumphantly over every obstacle with her erudition and her invented martial art (it has moves like but-kik) and her certainty that she’ll be just fine. She is fearless and impervious to harm. She does things that in a more realistic book would put her in danger, like spending the night in a New York City park and taking on a pimp. But I didn’t fear for her. Ross is perfectly aware of real-life dangers, and people try to hurt Oreo, but they never succeed. An attempted rapist literally bounces off her (I won’t spoil the details). What a delicious fantasy this was.
Harryette Mullen’s Afterword describes how Oreo‘s hybrid language–woven from Yiddish, Southern Black vernacular, Oreo’s brother’s made-up “cha-key-key-wah” dialect, pop-culture references, and more–is also a kind of empowerment: Oreo “feels free to claim or discard whatever she wishes of African American, Jewish American, and ‘mainstream’ American cultures,” a freedom to shape her own identity that real people of color are often denied, or at least that isn’t recognized by white Americans. This is another way in which Oreo is a mythic heroine.
As Mullen says,
In Oreo, the stereotype is often made more conspicuous by an unexpected twist or inversion, forcing into consciousness the underlying assumptions of jokes about sex, race, and ethnicity.
There is, for instance, a black suburb (called Whitehall, naturally) disturbed by the arrival of low-income white residents:
The upper-middle-class blacks of Whitehall objected to the palefaces, not because they were poor (“The poor we have with us always,” said town spokesman, the Reverend Cotton Smith-Jones, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church), but because they were white (“We just do not want whitey, with his honky ways, around us,” said Reverend Smith-Jones to a chorus of genteel Episcopalian “Amens”).
How many jokes, and how much that is serious, about American history and culture and language are packed into that one sentence?
If you want your humor less topical or political, Oreo also has plenty to offer:
this was a Platonic relationship–or maybe Hegelian
“Any pot in the storm,” said Oreo. She had no shame. She watched Honor bound for a tearoom [he’s looking for a place to pee].
To call Oreo a minor was, slowly and caerphilly, to drive a shaft into the pits of her cheeseparing soul.
Oh my God, so many terrible, hilarious puns.
Oreo should have become a feminist classic and a classic of African-American literature and just a plain old classic back in 1974. Now it has another chance. And maybe Senna and Mullen are right that the American readership has finally caught up to it, ready for its hybridity and expectation that its readers can move fluidly and fluently among the languages and cultures that make up America. I hope so, because Oreo, like Oreo, deserves to triumph.