What if James Joyce had been a black woman?

The Oreo cookie was created in March 1912. That means that succulent specimens of it could be served on the Titanic. Let us remember that the Titanic set sail and sank in April of that same year. The fact is that the cookie in question was created by the National Biscuit Companya by then not at all totemic cookie factory located in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. The only thing the company wanted was to steal the odd client from the Sunshine Companywhich was on something like the crest of the biscuite wave at the time thanks to something called Hydrox.

The cookie was similar enough to get it. The first grocer to place an order was a grocer from Hoboken, New Jersey. The rest, as they say, is history; millions of cookies sold around the world, and in this case, moreover, a brilliant literary treasure unfairly and cruelly ignored until someone decided to dig it up.

Considered the black Ulysses, and published in 1974, at the height of the Black Power of the 70s, ‘Oreo’ (Pale Fire), the first and only novel by Fran Ross–a gifted narrator, on a par with the great stylists of that decade, and why not, of all decades, starting with James Joyce himself–, rewrites in a feminist, multiracial key and very urban, the myth of Theseus, that is, the Homeric Odyssey.

Brutally disdained at the time, it was only said of her – in the kind of literary supplement that nobody cares and nobody reads – that she was “experimental, intelligent and even funny in some passages” but that, “nevertheless, the dialogues” were “a strange mixture of the Uncle Remus and Lenny Bruce pretty unintelligible.” The author of the review intended to brand Ross as a revival –somewhat frivolous– of a post-plantation story.

Auster’s Choice

Relaunched first in the year 2000–without much luck– and finally in 2015 –with all the fortune in the world: translations rained down, its absence was branded in the canon of literary, editorial and critical crime–, Paul Auster was quick to raise his voice to consider it one of his three favorite books of all time.

Why he hadn’t done it before is a mystery, perhaps having to do with a fear of unendorsed genius. Or maybe it’s simply that, like the rest, no matter how much it had been published in his country, and at a time when literature was blowing everything up, he hadn’t had the chance to come across it until now. The point is that if all this had happened when it should have, today there would be not only one Ross novel, but perhaps many more, and here is the crime that should never be committed: that of denying genius when it appears.

Ross, a child prodigy who served cocktails at the parties of Arthur J. O’Neil, a Seagram’s tycoon, had been born in 1935 – she died of a devastating cancer at 50 – and had read so much, so much, and was so damn funny – he came, with no help other than his talent, to find his way to television where he began writing jokes for Richard Pryor – who, when he got down to business, created something powerfully unique.

Let’s see. Here is the story of Christine Clark, the girl with the oreic smile, whom everyone knows as Oreo, daughter and granddaughter of women who, at times, send absurd letters and, at times, cook delicacies that, if they spoke, would be ambassadors of a Nuevo Mundo – so from another planet they are –, to whom everything does not matter except meeting her father, a guy named Samuel Schwartz, and whose delusional search begins with the phone book in hand.

In some sense sparkling, and vibrant, Ross’s prose – that if she served cocktails at O’Neil’s parties it was because her grandmother was a cook in the tycoon’s house, and let’s say that this was the first of the endless jobs that took her away of writing for too long – is, yes, as ambitious as the most ambitious of postmodernists, and among them all, the only non-white (and Jewish), the only woman, the only one for whom the game of ending everything did not stay in the style.

If postmodernity has always been a political position –”Down to the last limit”, she tells us-, in the case of Ross it is at a stratospheric level that she, however, with infinite disarming humor, try not to take yourself seriously. Not in vain, this is how the novel begins: «Definition of Oreo: black person on the outside and white on the inside».

trip to the underworld

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On his journey through the underworld of Manhattan, Oreo, like Theseus in Ancient Greece, runs into con men, sorceresses, and even mythological beasts. –the chivalrous white man with a huge member who walks on all fours and ridiculously tries to penetrate her, but doesn’t because there’s nothing Oreo can’t prevent–, and he defeats them all. In the most palatable cases with his ingenuity, as with the boy Scott Scott and his social math problems.

Here’s one: “Gloria spends a certain amount on a new dress, some shoes, and a bag. If the combined cost of the bag and shoes is $150 more than the dress, and the combined cost of the dress and bag is $127 less than twice the cost of the shoes, what is Gloria’s real name? Yes, Fran, Frances Delores, Ross was a miracle.

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What if James Joyce had been a black woman?

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