” The girl’s got womb . . . she’s a real ball buster. “
This is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read—puny, hilarious and sublime. Fran Ross’ throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers. Sadly, it was the only book she wrote and that it didn’t get much attention when it was published in 1974. The heroine is Christine Clark a.k.a. Oreo. An “oreo” is, of course, a cookie, white on the inside and black on the outside; it’s also the taunt of choice for black people who appear to “act white.” Oreo doesn’t act white, in fact she embraces her multiplicity, aggressively asserting her mixed identity, code-switching between Yiddish, Ebonics, and highbrow academic jargon. Born to a Jewish father and black mother who divorce before she turned two, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her maternal grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York with a backpack to search for her father, a voice-over actor in Manhattan who has left her an absurd list of clues regarding her birth. He’s a bum, according to her mother, and her mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest.
Although the novel draws no conclusions and the quest leads to no ground-breaking revelatory payoff (a slight let-down), it’s diversion from the quest by wordplay and metareferences that makes Oreo shine. Ross has no qualm about racial taboo and she just goes off the tangents with racial puns. The narrative challenges accepted notions of race, ethnicity and culture. Oreo is Oreo’s quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her (Jewish white) father. She is cheeky, intelligent, and mischievous. She develops a self-defense system that deploys against many men who beat women with impunity. Her encounter with a horde of diverse people allows her to meander through her wicked and free imagination and to push reader toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. This book is erudite and playful. That it’s tied to the Greek myth allows it to go through some very insane materials without spinning out of control. Uproarious feminist attics!
230 pp. New Directions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]