This novel takes place in a small rural town called Madagascar, Mississippi, following the lives in its culturally diverse community. Angus Chien, a second-generation Chinese man, runs the Celestial Grocery, the town’s center and home of a beautiful though unreliable jukebox which was last updated in the 1960s. He employs Boubacar, a young boy who’s part of a Mauritanian immigrant community, whose love of African music leads him to discover the blues and Christian gospel of the Delta. It also follows Raine, an unhappy suburban wife and mother suffering worsening panic attacks at having to drive in traffic, who is in a way healed by the oracular artwork of Marie Abide, a possible love child of Henri Matisse.
It makes sense that a novel called “The Celestial Jukebox” would have music as a foregrounded theme and symbol. Throughout the novel, music is emphasized as a primary art form of the South, as it functions both as repository for the region’s history as well as a cross-cultural language. An equally important aspect of music, however, is its imaginative aspect as artistic expression. This aspect is highlighted by its juxtaposition with other art forms in the novel, especially the found art sculptures made by Marie which incorporate sheet music into their designs. The importance of art and the imagination in The Celestial Jukebox demonstrates that the most promising strategy for the survival of the South is through the work of its artists and the artwork they produce.
Given the scope of this paper, I wish to focus on the figure of Bebe Marie Abide and her artwork in the novel. Certainly, the realization about the true nature of music that Dean Fondren makes—that “music was like a seine net…trawling the air to catch the spirits of the mutilated of the world, and to romance them back into the arms of the rest, who could help them. Anything else was just noise, a plague of grasshoppers that would strip the land bare” (410)—applies to Marie’s artwork, especially her birdhouses which find their way into the lives of many in the novel.
Marie’s imaginative perspective as an artist allows her to see possibilities which elude others. The sheet music which to others looks like garbage on the side of the road appears to Marie as “abandoned valentines” (62), which she works into the birdhouses she creates from bottle caps and the covers of old books. Like the blues music present throughout the book, Marie’s artistic vision also comes from a tragic background, as she was born out of wedlock to a mentally unstable artist who may possibly have conceived Marie with the artist Henri Matisse. Also like the blues, Marie’s artistic vision is recognized as having a uniquely spiritual component. While there are no stories about Marie selling her soul to the devil in exchange for her art, her memory of watching an image of herself painted by her mother burn in a zinc bathtub in Paris is certainly a vision of hell.
Marie’s artistic spiritual authority is recognized in various ways by other characters. When Boubacar sees her bottle tree, he recognizes it as the work of an African sorcière (29). Further, Marie’s encounters with the suburban Raine often have an oracular tone to them, with Marie making tantalizingly mysterious statements such as referring to her birdhouse as “A little fresh fruit from the orchard of abandoned dreams” (73). Marie’s birdhouses may serve a similar purpose as her bottle tree, “detain[ing] whatever spirits meant harm to the household” (28). Especially in Raine’s case, these art objects have magical properties which seem to help facilitate change in the lives of those to whom they have been entrusted.
Perhaps most importantly, Marie’s artistic life is one which openly rejects finance- and commodity-based capitalism. As her own artwork not only is made from scavenged items but also sold outside of the system—literally, as when she is threatened by the “hospitality man” outside of the upscale grocery store for selling without a license (72). She is arrested for breaking televisions for sale. She refuses to properly participate in the kind of commodity-based capitalist system which is blamed both in the novel as well as by critics for the destruction of the South, both in the destruction of its idyllic landscape as well as the erosion of its unique cultural identity. By ending the novel with the “Benediction” chapter, which follows the life of Marie, Shearer may be privileging the artistic vision as holding out the last hope for the perpetuation of the South. Ending the novel on an exchange between Marie and Henri Matisse which starts about art and ends with her affirming in French that he is her father, Shearer emphasizes the important familial potential of cross-cultural artistic exchange, which has been thematized throughout the novel not only in the African-inflected blues and gospel music played in the Delta, but also in the ubiquitous expressions of the ineffable through folk art. Even if the casino seems to be winning over the farmer, the South will always have its Robert Johnsons, Howard Finsters, and Bebe Marie Abides to translate these events into a southern vernacular through their art.