(New York, NY: New Directions, 2015)
It may come as a surprise to many readers of Fran Ross’s Oreo, recently rereleased by New Directions, that upon the book’s first appearance in 1974, the story failed to find its audience. Oreo has something for everyone: It is a minefield of irreverent wit, with laughs detonating from every paragraph; it is a picaresque adventure, heralding one of the most badass-yet-endearing heroines ever to swagger across the pages of world literature; it is a self-reflexive ode to reading, a Janusian nod to literary tradition which boldly proclaims its own originality; it is a (multi)cultural satire still—and perhaps even more—resonant in contemporary American society; and it is a linguistic experiment, a polymeric admixture of neologisms, word play, euphemisms, semantic puzzles, and code-switching, which, with an ear to the music embedded in spoken language, trips along like poetry.
How, then, could such a soaring literary achievement have been forgotten, left out not only from the canon of the Black Arts movement—which, by carving out that intersection between popular culture and a serious interrogation of racial identity, staked out prime literary real estate for Oreo—but also ignored by any index of those works which articulate a uniquely American voice? Danzy Senna, in her introduction, ventures a convincing answer, by comparing Oreo with its contemporaneous counterpart, Alex Haley’s bestselling Roots: “Roots looks toward the past. It offers black people an origin story, an imagined moment of racial purity…It constructs a lost utopia for us and a clear fall from Eden, Africa. Oreo, from the title alone and its first loony pages, suggests murkier, more polluted racial waters.”
Indeed, Oreo eschews the easy explanations of myth and therefore resists any comparisons which would have made it commercially palatable. It is a quest narrative which only leads us further into the labyrinth while seeming to thrill in getting hopelessly lost. “Oreo,” as the book’s epigraph defines the term, refers to “[s]omeone who is black on the outside and white on the inside.” It is also the name of our plucky heroine, who does not exactly fit this description (and whose nickname comes from an altogether different and more amusing linguistic source), but who is racially mixed, the offspring of a black mother, Helen Clark, and a Jewish father, Samuel Schwartz. The story bounces back and forth among anecdotes describing Oreo’s quirky family members and acquaintances, particularly Louise and the catatonic James Clark, her maternal grandparents and caretakers. That is, until Oreo comes of age and her mother hands over a list of clues left by her father tolead her back to him and the secret of her birth.
From here, the narrative whirls Oreo into the heart of New York City, where a series of encounters serves mainly to highlight the cultural diversity of this condensed urban landscape – if only hyperbolically. Thus many of the characters amount to types who, in pure Vaudevillian fashion, are defined by their idiosyncrasies (quite often consisting of offbeat speech patterns) and quickly fall by the wayside as Oreo, pronouncing upon the scene with the observations of a stand-up comic, proceeds to her next test.
Nevertheless, Oreo herself is an imposing character. In the vein of the quintessential mythical hero, she possesses every skill which is indispensable in her quest: She is a whiz with numbers and puzzles. She is a precocious imitator, peppering her thoughts and speech with borrowings from Yiddish, French and Latin (not here defined, but easily discernible in context), threading her register with scholarly allusions and the individual vernaculars she assimilates with ease. And, she seems to possess a herculean strength, or at least a physical prowess which finds its expression in a martial art of her own creation, with moves she dubs “hed-lok,” “shu-kik,” “bal-brāc,” and “fut-strīk,” among others.
Yet as unbelievable as it may be to unite these talents in a single character, it would seem Ross paid close attention to heredity, linking each of Oreo’s traits to one which is comically displayed by one or another member of her motley family. It is as if Oreo represents the embodiment of American hybridity, that complex alloy out of which our cultural mettle is forged and hardened. It is also worth noting that Ross herself was quite the prodigy, excelling at both academics and athletics at a predominantly Jewish high school before graduating at fifteen and attending Temple University on scholarship.. She went on to work as a proofreader and editor before writing this, her only book, and thereafter became a comedy writer for the Richard Pryor Show (xiv-xvi). One cannot help but see Oreo as a reflection of the author’s own background, in particular of her intellectual horsepower and wide-ranging interests.
Yet despite Ross’s clearly formidable intelligence—or perhaps because of it—she does not underestimate her readers. The novel abounds with literary allusions, most notably that of the Greek myth of Theseus from which the plot is recast. Much of the humor depends upon this flinging down of past literary idols and is delivered with the wink signaling a frame of reference shared between bibliophiles. Ever aware of its own place within this literary heritage, of itself as a text, Oreo impishly cherry-picks the western canon to create a new classic. Anyone who has ever taken a college literature course will delight in Ross’s clever use of character lists, summary, and self-interpretation—particularly the epilogue, titled “A Key for Speed Readers, Nonclassicists, Etc.”—which combine to form a sort of CliffsNotes guide comically embedded in the book it purports to explain.
But it is language that is the star of this book. Readers will find themselves wanting to return to sentences over and over again, if only to replay footage of Ross’s feats of lexical acrobatics, which seem almost effortless. Indeed, the musicality of the text is so engrossing that puns, allusions, and other asides often slip by unnoticed:
Her eyeballs were hot globes of tapioca. She breathed in flues of fire without flame, exhaled dragon blasts, stirring up sultry harmattans in her private sudatorium. The wax in her ears was turning to honey. Liquid threads were in conflux at her belly button (an “inny”), which held a pondlet of sweat. Pores of unknown provenance opened and emptied, sending deltas of dross toward her navel’s shore.
Even to give an overview of Oreo’s Joycean innovation would require an entire dissertation, despite the slimness of the novel. It suffices to say that this is the work of an author with an ear fine-tuned to that peculiarly American idiom, an author fundamentally aware of language as creative force. In fact, the novel’s end shows Oreo’s entire quest to have been linguistic: Language is the puzzle not only of Oreo’s identity but of American identity writ large, and the sobering themes laid bare by this seemingly innocent riddle—race, ethnicity, feminism, otherness, urban violence—remain ripe for unraveling even today.
For this reason, the puzzle at the heart of Oreo remains unsolved, and perhaps, as Senna argues in her introduction, that is the reason for its bewildered reception in 1974. Nevertheless, that is precisely why the novel will endure, greeting each new generation of readers with its continuing relevance, its edginess which resists smoothing down, and its unsettling questions, which further probe that unfinished experiment that is American culture.
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Amanda Sarasien is a writer and literary translator working from Portuguese and French into English. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, MAYDAY Magazine and The Cossack Review, among others. She also reviews at the sites Reading in Translation and The Mookse and the Gripes.