Seventy-three-year-old Ishmael Reed has been a major figure in American letters for more than four decades. In April, Dalkey Archive published Juice!, Reed’s first novel in more than fifteen years. Juice! tells the story of a struggling African American cartoonist whose personal and professional life is disrupted by the media frenzy surrounding the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Earlier this summer, Reed, who is based in Oakland, California, responded to some of my questions about his latest work.
Juice! is your first novel since 1993. What inspired you to write another novel after all these years?
I began this one as soon as I heard about the murders. I was vacationing in Hawaii, and the murders ruined my vacation. The media went berserk over the murder of Nicole Simpson, the kind of ideal white woman—a Rhine maiden—one finds in Nazi art and propaganda, murdered allegedly by a black beast. It was a story that reached into the viscera of the American unconscious, recalling the old Confederate art of the black boogeyman as an incubus squatting on top of a sleeping, half-clad white woman. It was also an example of collective blame. All black men became O. J. The murders ignited a kind of hysteria.
Juice! does not have a conventional structure. The novel incorporates courtroom documents, television transcripts, and pieces of visual art. It also plays around quite a bit with time. What gave rise to the novel’s peculiar shape?
I try to experiment. Writing a conventional novel would be boring for me. In this novel, I added cartoons. Cartoons were probably my introduction to storytelling as a child, because on Sundays we got The Chattanooga Times, and I’d read the funnies. A publisher wanted to publish Juice! but decided that the cartoons weren’t up to par. So, at the age of seventy, I studied at the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco, and the cartoons improved so much that I now do political cartoons for The San Francisco Chronicle’s blog, City Brights. Read More