by Fran Ross
2015 (originally published 1974) • 240 pages • New Directions
After watching Amy Schumer host Saturday Night Live, I remain as ambivalent as ever about the comedian. It’s not that I’m not glad for Schumer—I am! And it’s not that Schumer isn’t making considerable strides for women in comedy that will heartily be appreciated by the comedians that follow her. But, as Katie Barnes at Feministing points out, while her comedy is feminist-minded, it’s not terrifically inclusive. And all things, especially comedy, benefit from an appreciation and understanding of intersectionality, as well as a broader perspective. Greater awareness and sensitivity to the world around you doesn’t inhibit comedy; it expands comedy.
Case in point: Fran Ross’ Oreo, a comic novel published in 1974 that promptly (and undeservedly) fell off the radar, which gleefully seizes upon the intersecting identities of and imposed upon Christine “Oreo” Clark, a half-black, half-Jewish girl from Philadelphia, as comic grounds. How before its time is Oreo? It includes a joke about doctors providing subpar health care to queer people… made by a gay character at the doctors’ expense.
Oreo (originally nicknamed Oriole, but her grandmother’s thick Southern accent made short work that) is on a mission. Her parents, Helen Clark and Samuel Schwartz, have long since divorced, but Samuel entrusted Helen with a list of clues to give to their daughter should she ever seek her Jewish heritage. After an unusual upbringing, raised by a grandmother whose cooking is so good the very smell drives a few people out of their minds over the course of the novel and taught by a series of strange tutors, Oreo is deemed ready by Helen. Oreo then becomes a willfully shambolic retelling of the Odyssey in 1970s New York—or, as Ross puts more succinctly, “When told at an early age that she would one day have to seek out her father to learn the secret of her birth, [Oreo] said, “I am going to find that motherfucker.” (37)
It’s less a riff on the Odyssey itself (although Ross’ wicked take on a cyclops must be seen to be believed) and more an excuse for Oreo to run rampant and fearlessly wild. Young, but “disguised as an adult” due to “her constant bullshit” (111), she revolves like a kaleidoscope, blending her various heritages and her own keen understanding of the world she operates in into an advantageous shade no matter where she ends up. She code switches and passes as whatever she needs to to achieve her goal. It’s an honest relief to read a novel about a young woman in a big city where the protagonist is never in any real danger. When her mother shares her theory about how the patriarchy persists (physical violence), Oreo, as a small girl, determines to master self-defense, developing a style that blends bodily blows with verbal thrusts. Yes, Oreo is in dangerous situations, but she’s smart enough, capable enough, and resourceful enough to get out of any scrape with the upper hand.
Ross’ verbal thrusts are just as, if not more, devastating than her heroine’s. I laughed out loud several times reading Oreo, because of the sheer sharp-eyed joy Ross takes in playing with language. This is a novel whose opening remarks invite you to imagine the weather of the setting to be anything you have a particular ken for. “Assume whatever season you like throughout,” Ross tells us, but “Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length” (5). Wordplay, brash and joyous, figures prominently; one of Oreo’s tutors is a strange man whose entire skill set seems to be linguistic acrobatics. Ross takes tangents to deliver short comedic bits, such as a black community suddenly dealing with an influx of white homeowners and employing familiar methods to preserve their community. The anxiety of the situation takes a toll; their lawns, “formerly reasonably manicured but now nervously bitten to the quick”, suffer brilliantly.
Oreo does have one or two stumbling points; in particular, a gag about a band of female rapists assaulting a man who can’t hold an erection falls flat, because it’s the only joke in the novel that punches down, instead of up, being predicated on the terrible and damaging notion that men cannot be raped. But, largely, it’s a wild, wordy ride that feels all the more timely for how rare it is. I’m so delighted it’s back in print; we need books like this.
I rented this book from the public library.