The Ass’s Tale
John Farris’s The Ass’s Tale is a pun. Meaning there are always two tales. The one tale Farris is ostensibly playing with is The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, or The Golden Ass, in which the narrator Lucius accidentally turns himself into an ass. In a DuBoisian turn of the screw, Farris tells of two tales—an ass’s and a dog’s. In Farris’s tale, Petronius, renamed Lucius Apuleius, is turned by Elvis into a hound dog, hounded himself by the man, trying to look after his own black ass John. In the process, he lifts the veil on America’s heroes and Uncle Sam—that is, the United States—that is, us.
Farris’s America is a world of duplicity, overrun by Lucans (snakes) who can both save a dog’s life in Attica and can steal a blind vet’s gold. In this America, pop culture heroes like Elvis and Desi Arnaz work side-by-side with history’s villains like Dr. Petoit and Edward Teller. Women have names like Woody and Peck. You can disguise yourself as your Wanted poster on Morton Street where everyone looks just as different as everyone else. A black ass passes for Red. In the punning and the doubling and duplicity, it all can get very complex and confusing.
At one point in the novel Uncle Sam asks Ras Tafari, Emperor Haille Selasi, to check on their rights in terms of their operations. The emperor pulls a quote from Genesis: “Let us go down and confuse them.” The quote refers to the people building the Tower of Babel. The confusion specifically referred to is the problem of language. From the first page of the book, Lucius describes the dream of his Odyssey, “encountering strange tongues, odd voices coming at me from the radio.” Indeed, the novel is one of strange tongues (klookamop and rreety-o-roony) and odd voices.
But it is this Babel that is precisely what makes reading The Ass’s Tale so enjoyable. Roland Barthes writes, in The Pleasures of the Text, “The text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel.” The pleasures of Farris’s Babel are manifold, from intertextual games to culturally allusive tickling. Describing the pleasure of reading in the erotic terms of his exhibit, Sade, Barthes locates the pleasure of reading in “breaks” and “collisions,” in antipathies in contact, in the two-edged. “Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic,” he writes, “It is the seam between them…their [the works of our modernity] value would proceed from their duplicity. By which it must be understood that they always have two edges.” Farris takes his two-edged tail through America’s duplicitous and multiplicitous voices, to some pleasingly powerful effects.
Until he himself becomes invisible, Lucius serves as seeing-eye dog to a blind man, a hard-working World War II vet from Harlem who gets duped out of his money by Lil’ Eva and Uncle Sam himself. His is one of the odd voices we don’t get often—and we know why. He can’t see anyone about his problem, he has no voice, and drops out of the novel. The really odd voice, however, becomes the duplicitous Lil’ Eva. We share Lucius’s contempt for her in solidarity with the blind man, but at the end even Lil’ Eva becomes pitiable, as, doped up and desperate for another shot, she futilely insists that she (a snake) is not a dog. Her final scene ends with Lucius, and the reader, feeling neither pity nor gladness. “It was a mess no matter which way you looked at it,” Lucius says.
But what’s so pleasurable about the mess? Like the pun, it doesn’t matter which way you look at it, meaning you’re at the seams. Barthes says that the pleasure is in the seams, and the ass is an anatomical seam. Bakhtin calls it “the face turned inside out.” We don’t get any big revelations, any huge unmasking—not of Uncle Sam, not of James Moody, not of Lucius. The pleasure we get is an ass’s pleasure. Messy no matter which way you look at it. But the point is that you saw it. You’ve seen the ass in the face, and boy, what a tale!