Book Review

This unbelievably bright pink paperback is a reprint, accompanied by an introduction by Danzy Senna and an afterword by Harryette Mullen, but Oreo remains, more than forty years after it was first published by Greyfalcon House (in 1974), an under-read and decidedly fresh book. Fresh both as in not stale and as in not pious. In this novel, an unflappably confident teenaged girl prevailsthrough her ingenuity, wit, and a complicated system of self-defense movesover each threat placed in her way. (In light of recent news of a planned “Museum of Women’s History” being turned into a museum about the victims of Jack the Ripper, you can see why a feminist, comic novel like Oreo is welcome.)   

The plot is simple; it is based on Theseus’s quests. The teenaged Oreo wanders around New York City in search of her father, who has become, since he and her mother divorced, “the king of the voice-over actors.” (The novel certainly mocks its own scaffolding: Just as Ross must find equivalents for Theseus’s labors, Oreo has to make her way through a literal and inane checklist of items devised by her own less-than-helpful father.) Although Oreo takes eighty pages to leave her grandparents’ home in Philadelphia, the prose itself hits the ground running: in the first two paragraphs it eliminates two of its characters. The book does not slow down even after its technical ending, where you will find a postscript addressed to “Speedreaders, Nonclassicists, Etc.” That “etc.” is beautifully sweeping, and characteristic—Ross doesn’t worry about rounding out sentences for balance or elegance.

Her narrative makes its prioritiesfor indecorum and disproportion—clear early, taking a whole paragraph to explain that

There is no weather per se in this book. . . .  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.

Nor do pages have to be used up on introductions or transitions. Ross splits Oreo into fifteen chapters, and those chapters into sections of varying length, some as short as a paragraph or a single sentence. Each is headed by a more or less informative title: First, the bad news followed by The bad news (cont’d), followed by Major and minor characters in part one of this book, in order of birth. With such loud demarcations, the narrative can simply start a new sketch or new epic catalogue, instead of having to tie off loose ends.

In this always exaggerating mode, everything is a subject for laughter: race relations, incest, the threat of sexual violence. At one point, even a potential rape is presented as comedic entertainment. Such a scene is as troubling as it sounds: a garishly rendered physical threat is punctuated and then displaced by slapstick, farce, and Pulp Fiction-esque stylization. But that scene, which left me feeling irritated and slightly priggish (I wondered how on earth I’d teach it), has stayed with me. If Oreo is timely for a culture where a high proportion of female characters are peripheral and often exist to be killed off, it’s also timely for a culture that is very careful about what it laughs at.

The book is clearly happy to deflate any kind of squeamish or genteel circumlocution. Early on, for example, we encounter a matter-of-fact numerical scale for designating a person’s skin color, which is referred to throughout the book. Oreo, “a 7,” is biracial; the two characters eliminated in the first paragraph are her Jewish paternal grandmother, who “drop[s] dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary,” and her anti-Semitic, black grandfather, who is paralyzed in the shape of a “a rigid half-swastika.” Oreo’s actual name is Christine, the result of a brief spat between her parents. When it is her father’s turn to name the next child, a son, “He thought it was funny to name a black kid Moishe.” Characters often use language not as a tool but as one of those fake plastic flowers that squirts water.

Both Senna and Mullen provide vivid discussions of the book’s language. Language fuels the book. It wipes out the distinctions between high and low, happily taking in “a blanc de blancs champagne and a blankety-blank Pepsi.” One epigraph consists of “Burp!,” which is attributed to Wittgenstein. All kinds of voices and utterances are allowed in. Near the center of the book is an elaborate multi-page menu ranging over ten languages and cuisines: it even changes font. Yiddish slang is constant, as is a grandmother’s Southern accent (which, Ross tells us, “would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of apostrophes”), and fake French also appears. Oreo’s little brother develops a theatrically ingenuous idiolect; when he wants his sister to bring the neighborhood children together for a picnic, he says, like Jesus, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Oreo’s mother, a good mimic, can imitate “a bowl of mashed potatoes being covered with gravy.” Even the corns on an otherwise insignificant character’s feet talk:

She decided to take care of the dead lady’s plants first, before her corns started tom-tomming (“Sit down—bam!—’fore you—double wham!—fall down—boom!  Would I—boom-boom!—treat you this way?—wham-boom-bam?”).

It would be a challenge to read some of this book aloud—surely the parts with font changes, diagrams, and equations, but even Oreo’s invented system of self-defense, which is known as WIT, or the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, needs to be taken in visually. Its moves, given appropriately exotic and academic names by an anthropologist, include “the hed-lok, shu-kik, i-pik, hed-brāc, i-bop, ul-na-brāc, hed-blō”; they are brought out when Oreo enters “a state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as.” But many of this book’s jokes seem written for a standup comedian to deliver. (Ross almost wrote comedy for Richard Pryor, though that plan fell apart, as Mullen explains.) There are brilliant shaggy dog stories. And there are simple but wonderfully comic inversions; when a picnic is announced, “All the children jumped up and down shouting that they did not want to go.”
A moment like that might be overlooked amid the novel’s boisterousness: one of the unexpectedly winning things about Oreo is its depth of quieter, nearly straightfaced phrases. Even if you have an impulse to read this terrific book in one sitting, dont be a Speedreader (being a Nonclassicist, Etc. will not be a problem). Oreo was Ross’s only novel, and it deserves to have every sentence appreciated fully; one wishes she had written much more.



About the Reviewer

Calista McRae is a PhD student in English at Harvard University, writing about humor and recent American poetry