Harold Jaffe, FictionNet, $12.95

Tom LeClair

"T he National Entertainment State" was the title of The Nation's recent special issue on Big Publishing (March 17, 1997). A centerfold illustrates the triumph of vulgarity, the pervasive penetration of independent publishers by billion-dollar entertainment corporations. Several essayists remark on the negative trickle-down effect on small presses, but none of the media critics mentions electronic publishing, as if the left-readers of The Nation lacked Internet access. I have to confess: I wouldn't have noticed this lacuna a year ago. I wasn't wired then, and I hadn't received rejection letters from literary presses telling me to write my congressman about the N.E.A. Author of one small-press novel, I thought I had a problem. Then I heard about Harold Jaffe, Othello Blues, and FictionNet. The author of five collections of fiction and three novels (published by both commercial and small presses) and the subject of essays, interviews, and dissertations, Jaffe turned to FictionNet to disseminate a work that almost certainly would have been published in hard copy ten years ago. An imaginative, witty, and politically prescient retelling of Othello, Jaffe's novel represents just the kind of fiction that may in the future find readers only on the Internet and through publications such as ebr.

Jaffe's Othello is Otis "Big O" Crawford, the leader of a blues band called Crawfish. When jewish harp player Iago is dropped from the group, he starts plotting to get back in and then to destroy Otis, whose "Dez" is the daughter of a multimillionaire. The setting is New York and the Mississippi Delta in 2005, a cyberpunk future where Christian Godfearers skate through city streets beating up the homeless and people of color. In this environment, Otis is pulled between his past as an activist in Steve Biko Identity and his art, which he worries merely entertains and diffuses political energies. Instead of reducing Otis to a victim of his personal fears and suspicions, Iago's plotting pushes Otis back toward race and class solidarity. In Jaffe's tragedy, Otis dies while Iago and Cassio, another white musician, live on as narcissistic performers in a televised two-man show, willing participants in the National Entertainment State against which Otis has rebelled.

Although Othello Blues may sound politically earnest in this capsule description, the novel is transgressive in several ways that may have sent Jaffe to FictionNet. Rather than hide his dramatic source in prosaic guise, as Jane Smiley does, for example, in Thousand Acres, Jaffe simulates drama in both form and style, composing the novel almost wholly of stage directions, quick cuts, and dialogue. This experiment would not, of course, have denied Jaffe access to presses such as, say, Milkweed or Johns Hopkins, but the talk of Othello Blues is almost all African- American dialect. Coming from a white writer, the language, as well as some gender and racial stereotyping which Jaffe deconstructs, would—I believe—run afoul of political correctness at many "literary" presses, those last bastions of sensitive souls. Reading Jaffe's novel, I was often reminded of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, another book about black music that offends just about everyone from Moses onward. I think Jaffe risks alienating readers to test their assumptions about who can write African-American experience, but Jaffe may be able to get away with less race-crossing now than Reed or Shakespeare.

The authorial passions of Othello Blues are quite transparent: love for the blues and African-American language, hate of the white power structure that produces blues among the poor and black. With his simulation of drama, Jaffe is more successful representing what he loves. He writes his own blues lyrics and accurately mimics various black dialects. But like Otis the musician, Jaffe the novelist feels guilty about playing with sounds. He wants to document the external world that represses vernacular and improvisational art, so during the final duet of Iago and Cassio Jaffe projects slides on the walls of their club, pictures that critique late-capitalist economics, those forces which control the Entertainment State. Somewhat less blatant are three chapters told by a black character named Rosetta, who has no counterpart in Shakespeare. A member of Biko Identity, she critiques the bluesman's vision of life and helps lead Otis back to social activism.

The problem of Othello as a play—exposing the villainy of Iago very early—continues to be a narrative problem in Othello Blues, but Jaffe partially resolves it by developing Iago's sexual fears as motive for his hate. As plotter and expert language-user, Iago is also a stand-in for the conventional novelist, though not for Jaffe whose art is better represented by the play and the action of Otis. Although Otis can't seem to do both at once, Jaffe manages the combination in Othello Blues, and it is this doubled offensiveness to traditional, middle-class and mid-cult fiction that gives the novel its appeal.

Too long to be published as a story, too short (perhaps) to be printed as a book, Othello Blues is an awkward size for hard copy but not a problem for digital dissemination. Jaffe's text is one of nine novels or fiction collections available from FictionNet, which sends two disks—the literary work and Adobe Acrobat Reader software. Both textual and pictorial presentation are excellent, and purchasers can print one copy of the text for personal use. Although I haven't read other offerings from FictionNet, Othello Blues will take me to to sample the site's alternative to category-killers like Barnes and Noble.

Tom LeClair teaches at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent book is a novel, Passing Off, published by Permanent Press.


Copyright 1997 ebr and the author. All rights reserved.