Fran Ross - a playful, modernized parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus with a feminist twist, immersed in seventies pop culture, and mixing standard English, black vernacular, and Yiddish with wisecracking aplomb
Fran Ross, Oreo, New Directions; Reprint ed, 2015.[1974.]
read it at Google Books
A pioneering, dazzling satire about a biracial black girl from Philadelphia searching for her Jewish father in New York City
Oreo is raised by her maternal grandparents in Philadelphia. Her black mother tours with a theatrical troupe, and her Jewish deadbeat dad disappeared when she was an infant, leaving behind a mysterious note that triggers her quest to find him. What ensues is a playful, modernized parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus with a feminist twist, immersed in seventies pop culture, and mixing standard English, black vernacular, and Yiddish with wisecracking aplomb. Oreo, our young hero, navigates the labyrinth of sound studios and brothels and subway tunnels in Manhattan, seeking to claim her birthright while unwittingly experiencing and triggering a mythic journey of self-discovery like no other.
The first time I read Fran Ross’s hilarious, badass novel, “Oreo,” I was living on Fort Greene Place, in Brooklyn, in a community of people I thought of as “the dreadlocked élite.” It was the late nineteen-nineties, and the artisanal cheese shops and organic juice bars had not yet fully arrived in the boroughs, though there were hints of what was to come. Poor people and artists could still afford to live there. We were young and black, and we’d moved to the neighborhood armed with graduate degrees and creative ambitions. There was a quiet storm of what the musician and writer Greg Tate described as “Black Genius” brewing in our midst. Spike Lee had set up a production studio inside the old firehouse on DeKalb Avenue. Around the corner, on Lafayette Street, was Kokobar, a black-owned espresso shop decorated with Basquiat-inspired paintings; there were whispers that Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker were investors. Around the corner, on Elliott Street, Lisa Price, a.k.a. Carol’s Daughter, sold organic hair oils and creams for kinky-curly hair out of a brownstone storefront.
Now, in nineties Fort Greene, we had arrived. Many of the black kids in our midst were recovering oreos: they had grown up listening to the Clash, not Public Enemy, playing hacky-sack, not basketball. They were all too accustomed to, as my friend Jake Lamar once put it, being the only black person at the dinner party.
Only now we were throwing our own dinner party. We were demi-teint—half-tone—a shade of blackness that had been formed in a clash of disparate symbols and signifiers; there was nothing pure about us. We were authentically nothing. Each of us had experienced a degree of alienation growing up—too black to be white, or too white to be black, or too mixed to be anything—and somehow, at the same moment in time, we’d all moved into the same ten-block radius of Brooklyn.
“Oreo” came to me in this context like a strange, uncanny dream about a future that was really the past. That is, it read like a novel not from 1974 but from the near future—a book whose appearance I was still waiting for. I stared at the author photo of the woman wearing the peasant smock and her hair in an Afro and could easily imagine her moving through the streets of Fort Greene. She belonged to our world. Her blackness was our blackness.
“Oreo,” its first time around, in 1974, had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Save for a few amused and somewhat confused reviews in Ms. magazine and Esquire, it apparently didn’t speak to the wider cultural landscape of the moment. It came out only two years before that other novel, the cultural sensation, Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” While “Oreo” may have been one of the least-known novels of the decade, “Roots” went on to become the single most popular novel of the decade. It occupied the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty-two weeks. It was adapted into one of the most-watched television miniseries of all time.
For most Americans my age—particularly if you are black—“Roots” is part of our childhood iconography. We can all trade stories of sitting on the floor, watching with a mixture of rapture and disbelief. I remember weeping when Fiddler died, because I, too, played the fiddle. I remember at school, the day after the first episode of the miniseries aired, a white girl walked up to a table of black kids in the cafeteria and said, with tears in her eyes, that she was so sorry about slavery, and could she please empty their lunch trays for them?
The titles themselves of these two texts—“Roots” and “Oreo”—imply the profound gap between the works, giving us a clue about the kind of black narratives we like to celebrate, and the kind we’ve tended to ignore. “Roots” looks toward the past. It offers black people an origin story, an imagined moment of racial purity—when the Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte is kidnapped, off the shores of Gambia. It constructs a lost utopia for us and a clear fall from the Eden of Africa. “Oreo,” from the title alone and its first loony pages, suggests murkier, more polluted racial waters.
Oreo, born Christine Clark, the biracial progeny of the fall, is our heroine, and, like all good heroes and heroines, she’s on a quest. But, unlike Alex Haley, Oreo is trying to find her white side—her missing Jewish father. Her absent father is no site of longing; he’s a voice-over actor in Manhattan, who has left her an absurd list of clues to help locate him. He’s a bum, according to her mother. “I’m going to find that fucker” is how Oreo sets out on her search, which feels more like an excuse to wander away from her home than a real desire for a father.
Aesthetically, “Oreo” has all the hallmarks of a postmodern novel in its avoidance of profundity and its utterly playful spirit. It draws no conclusions, and the quest leads to no giant, revelatory payoffs. The father and his secret about her birth constitute, in the end—and without giving anything away—as absurdist a feminist send-up of the patriarchal myth as one could hope to find. 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 more in line stylistically and aesthetically with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut than with Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange, to name two other black female writers of Ross’s time.
Oreo never becomes a fully believable character, and this feels appropriate to the work’s spirit. The novel does not strive for realism; Ross is not trying to construct a seamless, plot-driven narrative or a sympathetic, three-dimensional main character. We are always aware of Oreo as a construct, and of her story as a construct. Puns, wordplay, standup-comedy riffs, menus, charts, tangents: the journey to find the father is just a chance for Ross to meander through her wicked and free imagination, and to push us toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. “Christine,” Ross writes, and she could be writing of herself, “was no ordinary child … she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry.”
Alongside the feminist standards we had lying around my house when I was a kid, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying,” there was an anthology of black literature, “Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America,” that always seemed to be in the kitchen. It was one of the early, canonizing texts of the burgeoning African-American-studies departments. On the cover was a silhouette of a black male face, foreboding and sad, surrounded by a circle of red. I guess that male profile was supposed to be taken literally, because, of the thirty-four authors included in the book, exactly four were women.
“Oreo” resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about Ross’s work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South. Oreo is sincerely ironic, hilarious, brainy, impenetrable at times. Oreo’s mother is mostly absent. She dumps Oreo and her sweet, eccentric brother with their grandparents so that she can go on the road. She writes the children mawkish, insincere letters from different places. Oreo replies with letters written backward. When held up to a mirror, her words read “cut the crap mom.” Her mother does just that and begins to get real with her daughter. She explains in one letter why women are oppressed. After an elaborate theoretical analysis, she concludes, “I have been able to synthesize these considerations into one inescapable formulation: men can knock the shit out of women.” In the same letter, her mother tears to hell the stereotype of the black matriarch: “There’s no male chauvinist pork like a black male chauvinist pork.”
As in the best satire, nobody in “Oreo” is safe; nobody is spared. The humor is low at times, scatological and plain silly, and the humor is high, sophisticated wordplay and clichés flipped on their heads. Ross is a hard sell for February, Black History Month, and a hard sell for March, Women’s History Month. Hers is a postmodern text; it is a queer text; it is a work of black satire; it is a work of high feminist comedy; it is a post-soul text. Her novel is multifaceted and multilingual, making it an awkward presence on the landscape of American fiction, where “ethnic” literature can be put in kiosks like dishes at a food fair, and consumed just as easily.
After “Oreo,” Ross never wrote another novel. She died young, of cancer, in 1985, anonymous from a literary standpoint, but surrounded by friends. We know only scattered details about her life, tidbits about who she was as a person. At Temple University, several professors encouraged her in her studies, and she graduated magna cum laude. When she first came from her home town, Philadelphia, to New York City, she lived in a boarding house in midtown, the Webster Apartment for Women. A friend who met her there recalls her as brilliant and warm and extremely funny. Ross was fascinated by Jewish culture and the Yiddish language. She loved Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and James Baldwin. She heard Baldwin speak at various venues around the city. In her social world, she was often the only black girl at the white-feminist dinner party.
Once, with a group of these friends, she looked up the famously reclusive Djuna Barnes in the phonebook. They all went to the listed address, and, standing outside the apartment door, they heard classical music playing inside. When they knocked, Barnes, an old woman already, opened the door and simply said, “I don’t see people anymore,” before shutting the door in their faces.
Ross’s middle name was Delores, and she signed all her letters FDR, amused by the Presidential echo. She was intensely close to her family, particularly her mother. She was disappointed by the way “Oreo” was ignored. She tried to find another home for her talents and went to Los Angeles, in the late seventies, with a deal to write for Richard Pryor’s television show. Perhaps a standup comedian, especially somebody as out there as Pryor, would appreciate her disregard for social propriety, her outrageousness, her loyalty to nothing but the workings of her own startlingly original mind. But, when she arrived, she found herself disillusioned by the people in Pryor’s circle—and the show was cancelled. She returned to New York City and her day job in publishing, still searching for a genre in which her voice could be heard—a space where she could be true to her own fierce contradictions.
This essay is adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Fran Ross’s “Oreo,” out in July from New Directions. - Danzy Senna
Fran Ross’s first and only novel, “Oreo,” was published in 1974, four years after Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and two years before Alex Haley’s “Roots.” It wasn’t reviewed in The New York Times; it was hardly reviewed anywhere.
It’s interesting to imagine an alternative history of African-American fiction in which this wild, satirical and pathbreaking feminist picaresque caught the ride it deserved in the culture. Today it would be where it belongs, up among the 20th century’s lemony comic classics, novels that range from “Lucky Jim” and “Cold Comfort Farm” to “Catch-22” and “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
These sorts of lists have been for too long, to borrow a line from the TV show “black-ish,” whiter than the inside of Conan O’Brien’s thigh.
“Oreo” might have changed how we thought about a central strand of our literature’s DNA. As the novelist Danzy Senna puts it in her introduction to this necessary reissue: “ ‘Oreo’ resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about her work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South.”
Instead, in “Oreo” Ms. Ross is simply flat-out fearless and funny and sexy and sublime. It makes a kind of sense that, when this novel didn’t find an audience, its author moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to write for Richard Pryor.
The first pages of “Oreo” tell you a lot of what you need to know about this novel’s comic tone and the ways Ms. Ross stirs Yiddish into black vernacular to barbed effect.
In Paragraph 1, a Jewish boy in Philadelphia informs his mother that he’s dropping out of school to marry a black girl. His mother “let out a great geshrei,” Ms. Ross writes, “and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.”
In Paragraph 2, across town, the black girl informs her father she’s marrying the Jewish boy. He “managed to croak one anti-Semitic ‘Goldberg!’ before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika.” Dad remains a half-swastika’d pretzel for most of the novel.
With that, this book is off and burning strange American rubber. The couple has a dark-skinned son they name Moishe. They also have a daughter, Christine, known as Oreo, who is this novel’s heroine. The book is her teenage quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her father, who fled to New York City when she was young.
There’s a good deal of Pam Grier in Oreo. Tired of watching men beat women with impunity, she develops a system of self-defense she calls “the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” She deploys WIT in so many ways.
In one scene, on the prowl for her dad, she steals a pimp’s cane and gives him “a grand-slam clout” across the rear: “If his howl meant anything, it meant that he was now the only person on the block with four cheeks to sit on.” She grows pretty fearsome, for a little thing.
About what happens when Louise is at the stove, we read: “Five people in the neighborhood went insane from the bouquets that wafted to them from Louise’s kitchen. The tongues of two men macerated in the overload from their salivary glands. Three men and a woman had to be chained up by their families.”
When Oreo hands out some of Louise’s food on a train near Trenton, “groans and moans were heard amidst all the fressing.” There are spontaneous orgasms among the eaters. Food provides a lot of this novel’s offbeat imagery. In one scene Oreo grows so hungry she thinks to herself about deprivation: “It was what General Mills must go through when Betty Crocker was in mittelschmerz,” pain from ovulation.
It’s tempting to keep quoting Ms. Ross. Her throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers’ studied arias. When Oreo enters a New York City luncheonette for “a hot-sausage sandwich, a Shabazz bean pie and a Pepsi,” for example, she finds herself studying the woman behind the counter, who is reading a magazine.
“Oreo did a double-take. Vogue? She had misjudged the woman. Harper’s Bazaar, yes; Vogue, no, she would have sworn. Oreo now saw that she had missed the gaining-circulation squint of the eyes, the condé nast flare of the nostrils. Oreo was disappointed in herself. It was like mixing up the Brontës.” These lines sent a flare up my own nostrils.
“Oreo” is acid social criticism, potent because it is lightly worn. One of the advantages of Philadelphia over New York City, Oreo comments, is that Philadelphia has “red and white police cars so you can shout, ‘Look out, the red devil’s coming!’ ” She makes the case that coily hair (she prefers this phrase to “kinky hair”) is a clear evolutionary improvement over straight because coily hair keeps your head cool in summer, warm in winter and protects “from concussions by absorbing the shock of blows to the head.”
Ms. Ross takes a cultivated and nearly Nabokovian joy in the English language. She turns the words “friedan,” as in Betty, and “kuklux” into verbs. She arrives at the following collective noun: “a rothschild of rich people.” She bruits the notion of “an emergency semicolon.” Even the puns click. Oreo is warned to look out for rock outcroppings on her travels because “Manhattan is full of schist.”
Ms. Ross, who worked in publishing, wrote for Essence and other magazines and lived near Zabar’s in the same building as Jules Feiffer, died in 1985 at 50. It’s a great loss that we never got another novel from her.
For this reissue, we owe a debt to Ms. Senna and to the novelist Paul Beatty, who sang this novel’s praises in his influential anthology “Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor” (2006).
In his introduction to that book, Mr. Beatty wrote about feeling browbeaten, as a young man, by many canonical works by black writers. He spoke of missing “the black bon mot, the snap, the bag, the whimsy” upon which righteous anger and freedom take flight.
“Oreo” has snap and whimsy to burn. It’s a nonstop outbound flight to a certain kind of readerly bliss. It may have been first published more than 40 years ago, but its time is now. -
Fran Ross' Oreo is one of the funniest books I've ever read, but I've never quoted it. To do so, I would have to put quotations before the first page and then again at the last. Instead, I just use the words so many others who have been privileged to encounter Oreo use to describe it: hilarious, uproarious, insane. But these adjectives don't do it justice either. To convey Oreo's humor effectively, I would have to use the comedic graphs, menus and quizzes Ross uses in the novel. So instead, I just settle for, "You have to read this," and from just the first page they see what I mean.
Oreo is the story of the biracial daughter of an African-American woman and Jewish father, a man named Samuel Schwartz, who disappeared when she was an infant, leaving behind only a note that told her to later seek him and the mystery of her birth. When as an adult Oreo leaves her native Philadelphia on a quest to New York City in search of Sam Schwartz, she finds instead several sharing that name in the phone book. Soon Oreo is pulled into an adventure that mirrors the Greek tale of Theseus' journey into the Labyrinth, where the vehicle toward humor is the quirks of language in Jewish and black culture and every turn takes the reader deeper into the satire and into the heart of the absurdities of American identity.
As funny as the novel Oreo is — and it is very, very funny — it was ignored during its era. But it is easy to see how such a smart, hilarious novel could escape notice. There are books, great books, that appear at a time when no one is ready to read them. Oreo arrived in 1974, during the height of the Black Power movement with its focus on an African-based identity and black male power. A novel about a biracial woman's search for her Jewish identity, complete with Yiddish word jokes and a structure based around Greek mythology, was about as far away from what was expected of a black writer as possible. Biracial identity didn't even truly exist in the popular imagination at the time of the book's publication: If you were mixed you were considered black, and if you fought that you were branded an Oreo — white on the inside, black on the outside — a joke Ross embraced in the title character.
Oreo is at its core a feminist odyssey, but it came eight years before the publication of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, at a time when feminism was still viewed as largely a white-woman's movement. And most problematic in finding an audience during its time, Oreo is the ultimate idiosyncratic novel, as poet Harryette Mullen, who was largely responsible for bringing it back into print and cult status in 2000, called it. A truly original view of our world is what we yearn for in fiction, but sometimes when something is so original, so many years ahead of its time, it takes time for the audience to catch up to it. It's a statement of how far we've come that for this quirky, hilarious, odd, little biracial black book, that time is now. - Mat Johnson
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. - Amanda Sarasien
Oreo overheard him mumbling happily to himself about the many joyous conflations he and his new [girl]friend had had together. That one was easy for Oreo to figure out. “Conflation, from conflare, ‘to blow together,’” she said to herself. ‘Oh, shit. The professor’s just talking about plain old sixty-nine.”It’s nice to see the humor pulled out of the book; you can somehow grow inured to it when hit with these wisecracks every other sentence.
A comical reworking of the myth of Theseus, Oreo is a story told in fragments and formal experiments. In brief, comic episodes, scenes, and, sometimes, restaurant menus and math tests, Ross cracks jokes and builds an image of her lead, the young black Jewish woman Christine Clark AKA Oreo, as she sojourns to discover the “secret of her birth.” Through a ludicrous romp of sleuthing, Oreo follows a series of ridiculous clues left by her father on a coffee stained list in an attempt to find him and, by extension, the secret. Armed with her Thesean sword and sandals, a mezuzah on a chain (containing a New Testament passage no less!) and a pair of socks to keep warm, Oreo’s journey takes her all over Manhattan — stinky cheese shops in the Village to a Harlem brothel — concluding the novel with a mythic suicide and some role play at a sperm bank.
Ross’s approach to humor is as much distinct as it is distinctive of the time, at least to the new crop of readers whose image of American humor in the mid-1970s is most likely what they received in their parents’ nostalgic sharings of the male-dominated, often Jewish vaudevillian, comedy canon: Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974); Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973); and the comedy albums of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Cheech & Chong, and National Lampoon. The novel’s jokes range from crude play with etymology, as seen in the above crack, to the playful turns of mocking absurdity that made Groucho Marx famous: upon meeting his daughter for the first time, Oreo’s father happily notes “You have my eyes,” and Oreo’s response? “I was going to say the same thing to you.” Ross leaves it to the reader to imagine Oreo tapping her cane (which, yes, she is carrying around Manhattan) after this line. In this comic tradition, the humor works as a kind of identitarian smokescreen, as if to say, “Who am I? Someone cleverer than you, and that’s all you need to know.”
The crude and obvious contemporary connection this reviewer would draw to Ross’s work would be Ishmael Reed’s outlandish and sharp satirical novels, such as Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Flight to Canada (1976). Yet there seems to be something altogether different in Ross’s project. To speak generally, that is, reductively, Reed examines culture on the macro-level as a network of mythologies, identities (racial, gendered, national, and so on), and telecommunication waves. Ross examines culture on the micro-level of individuals acting in the world, making themselves, and, most importantly, having fun with the structural orders that make culture and identity — most especially language. One of the more important and fascinating differences this makes on Ross’s novel is the relationship she builds between her reader(s) and the work, the characters, and herself as the writer.
At the introduction of the novel’s biracial heroine, Ross positions the reader: “A secret cauled Christine’s birth. This is her story — let her discover it.” A cute pun followed by terse, if chuckled, warning to back off. Readers can take this tone as a microcosm for the whole of Oreo — a tale of a black American Jewish woman, who mixed ethnic and racial identities match America’s favorites for (comedic) entertainment. And here I am, a white American goy, being told that Christine’s story is a secret not for me to know before she figures it out.
Ross’s novel offers readers an unending stream of snort-worthy punchlines with implicit boundaries for who can access this story and how they can. Oreo is Christine’s story, and it is for her (read: Fran Ross) and nobody else. Black and Jewish readers probably have more to gain from such a story than readers like me: more aesthetic satisfaction, more bite to the humor, less time spent looking up Yiddish words. But the most significance seems to come from Ross’s claim of her protagonist’s independence from those enjoying the representation of her life. We can watch and laugh if we want to — but never forget that Ross’s life is not for us.
Ross plays with the desires to make certain peoples and their bodies legible according to cultural standards, similar to the way Oreo messes with a perverted caller posing as a medical doctor asking about her age, underwear choices, and virginity. When he asks the fourteen-year-old Christine to tell him “all the words [she] know[s] that mean sexual intercourse,” she casts a “wicked smile” and says, “Certainly. Procreation, cohabitation, coition, coitus.” Knowing she’s mockingly tapped into wrong vocabulary and frustrated him, she then tells the pervert what he wants to hear: “a lot of words that begin with p and c and t and x, that rhyme with bunt and pooky and noontang.” Manipulating and controlling this heavy-breathing perv with her knowledge of language, expectations, and patriarchy, Oreo convinces the caller, salivating with lust, to come to her house, only to greet him with her own specially-developed mixed-martial art: “Way of the Interstitial Thrust.”
Oreo knows how to make herself into whatever she wants to be by playing with the ways those around her perceive her; except that the joke is on them, the kick to the groin is for them, and the laughs are for her. Even the reader, who certainly gets their laughs, is not wholly allowed into her world. When the horny doctor asks for Oreo’s address, Ross doesn’t give her reader a street and house number in the dialogue, instead merely writing: “She gave him her address.” Ross reminds the reader that they are not in charge of this phone call, Christine’s Thesean journey, the language and pop-culture-referential play, or the novel itself. We readers should just be happy to be here.
Am I disingenuously reading a particular politics into Oreo? Totally possible. Ross probably mostly wanted to write a funny novel and make some cash. Such a theory would be supported by Haryette Mullen’s excellent new forward to the novel: struggling to make it as a comedy writer, Ross tries her hand at this ridiculous pile of ink and tree pulp so many people seem to be paying money for. It’s a good way to make a buck when you’ve got a quick wit, and “yucks for bucks” doesn’t necessarily mean political resistance or revolution. But, even so, mythology is more than just Ross’s narrative inspiration for this novel; isn’t mythology in a Barthesian sense the basis of great comedy? Our most revered comedians often play with what we think we know, otherwise known as lies we tell as if they’re truths (such as, stereotypes of black and Jewish women), to discover the sometimes joyful surprise that we were mistaken or that our myths are more fiction than axiom. This play with mythology is often as tragic as it is comedic, but it seems fair to assume that there’s always a political relevance.
Full of jokes on and with the bourgeoisie — clearly the demographic of cultural capital holding gut-busters Ross is writing for — the novel can so easily pull such a reader into the humor. Pages fly by with quips from precocious and insistently impatient characters, and, at the end, this reader can’t help but feel he just sat down and, following the suggestion of junk food in the novel’s title, gave the business to a bag of barbeque-flavored potato chips: staring into the middle distance, chuckling through the gum-cutting soggy debris of fried potato slices, reaching to the bottom of the empty wrinkled reflection-less mirror bag only to come up with my own fingers covered in delicious brown and orange flavor dust.
I am the readerly Janus head of stuffed and starved, pleased and disgusted. Ross certainly came, but how about you, reader? I don’t think Ross, Christine/Oreo, Helen, or any of the women in the novel particularly care about how the reader feels. Oreo is for its readers’ consumption, their over-satisfied stomach aches and plastic sleeves with only the sooty remains of cream-filled chocolate cookie sandwiches are their own business. I picked up Ross’s book, Oreo learned the secret of her birth, and I laughed my ass off, anyway. - Seth Cosimini
“A brilliant and biting satire, a feminist picaresque, absurd, unsettling, and hilarious ... Ross' novel, with its Joycean language games and keen social critique, is as playful as it is profound. Criminally overlooked. A knockout.” (Kirkus (Starred Review))
“With its mix of vernacular dialects, bilingual and ethnic humor, inside jokes, neologisms, verbal quirks, and linguistic oddities, Ross's novel dazzles…” (Harryette Mullen)
“It took me two years to "feel" Wu Tang's first album, even longer to appreciate Basquiat, and I still don't get all the fuss over Duke Ellington and Frank Lloyd Wright. But I couldn't believe Oreo hadn't been on my cultural radar.” (Paul Beatty - The New York Times)
“Hilarious, touching and a future classic.” (Vanity Fair)
“Think: Thomas Pynchon meets Don Quixote, mixed with a crack joke crafter. I'm not sure I've ever admired a book's inventiveness and soul more.” (John Warner - Chicago Tribune)
“The novel will endure, greeting each new generation of readers with its continuing relevance.” (Amanda Sarasien - The Literary Review)
“Hilariously offbeat. ” (Essence Magazine)
“This is a novel that refuses to be categorized or tamed in any way.” (Bookforum)
“Oreo has snap and whimsy to burn. It’s a nonstop outbound flight to a certain kind of readerly bliss. It may have been first published more than 40 years ago, but its time is now.” (Dwight Garner - The New York Times)
“Uproariously funny…criminally neglected.” (Stephen Sparks - LitHub)
First, the bad news
When Frieda Schwartz heard from her Shmuel that he was (a) marrying a black girl, the blood soughed and staggered in all her conduits as she pictured the chiaroscuro of the white-satin chuppa and the shvartze's skin; when he told her that he was (b) dropping out of school and would therefore never become a certified public accountant — Riboyne Shel O'lem! — she let out a great geshrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.
The bad news (cont'd)
When James Clark heard from the sweet lips of Helen (Honeychile) Clark that she was going to wed a Jew-boy and would soon be Helen (Honeychile) Schwartz, he managed to croak one anti-Semitic "Goldberg!" before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika,
Major and minor characters in part one of this book, in order of birth.
Jacob Schwartz, the heroine's paternal grandfather
Frieda Schwartz, his wife (died in paragraph one but still, in her own quiet way, a power and a force)
James Clark, the heroine's maternal grandfather (immobilized in paragraph two)
Louise Butler Clark, the heroine's maternal grandmother (two weeks younger than her husband)
Samuel Schwartz, the heroine's father
Helen Clark Schwartz, the heroine's mother
Christine (Oreo), the heroine
Moishe (Jimmie C.), the heroine's brother
Concerning a few of the characters, an apercu or two
Jacob: He makes boxes ("Jake the Box Man, A Boxeleh for Every Tchotchkeleh"). As he often says, "It's a living. I mutche along." Translation: I am, kayn aynhoreh, a very rich man."
James and Louise: In the DNA crapshoot for skin color, when the die was cast, so was the dye. James came out nearest the color of the pips (on the scale opposite, he is a 10), his wife the cube. Louise is fair, very fair, an albino manquee (a just-off-the-scale -1). James is a shrewd businessman, Louise one of the great cooks of our time.
Samuel Schwartz: Just another pretty face.
Helen Clark: Singer, pianist, mimic, math freak (a 4 on the color scale).
A word about the 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.
The life story of James and Louise up to the marriage of Helen and Samuel
In 1919, when they were both five years old, little James and little Louise moved to Philadelphia with their parents, the Clarks and the Butlers, who were close friends, from a tiny hamlet outside a small village in Prince Edward County, Virginia. When they were eighteen, James and Louise married and had their first and only child, Helen, in the same year.
During World War II, James worked as a welder at Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania. Every morning for three years, he would stop at Zipstein's Noshery to buy a pickle to take to work in his lunchbox. He would ask for a sour. Zipstein always gave him a half sour. From that time on, James hated Jews.
After the war, James had enough money saved to start his own mail-order business. He purposely cultivated a strictly Jewish clientele, whom he overcharged outrageously. He researched his market carefully; he studied Torah and Talmud, collected midrashim, quoted Rabbi Akiba — root and herb of all the jive-ass copy he wrote for the chrain-storm of flyers he left in Jewish neighborhoods. His first item sold like latkes. It was a set of dartboards, featuring (his copy read) "all the men you love to hate from Haman to Hitler." No middle-class Philadelphia Jew could show his face in his basement rec room if those dartboards weren't hanging there.
With this success as a foundation, James went on to tie-ins with other mail-order houses. He was able to offer his customers cheese blintzes for Shevuoth, handkerchiefs for Tisha Bov ("You'll cry a lot"), dreidels for Chanukah, gragers and hamantashen for Purim, wine goblets for Passover, honey for Rosh Hashanah, branches for Succoth ("Have the prettiest booth on your block"), and a recording of the Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur ("as sung by Tony Martin"). Next to each item in his catalog was a historico-religious paragraph for those who did not know the significance of the feasts and holidays. "You have to explain everything to these apikorsim," he told Louise, who said, "What say?" Over the years, his steadiest seller was the Jewish History Coloring Book series, including "the ever-popular Queen Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Judah and the Maccabees (add 50¢ for miniature plastic hammer), the Sanhedrin (the first Supreme Court), and other all-time Chosen People favorites." At last, his money worries were over. He was able to send Helen to college and buy Louise the gift of her dreams: a complete set of Tupperware (5,481 pieces).
Temple University, choir rehearsal
Simple, she conceded, compared with the overlapping fugal subject-answer-countersubject head equations that were her favorites — elegant, in fact, but not quite absorbing enough to keep her mind off the fact she was perspiring and wanted desperately to pee. Samuel, passing through the rehearsal hall, caught a glimpse of Helen's face and, mistaking her expression of barely controlled anguish for religious fervor, was himself seized with an emotion that mystics have often erroneously identified as ecstasy-cum-epiphany (vide Saul on the road to Damascus, Theresa of Avila every time you turn around): the hots. His accounting books fell to the floor.