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Let me say this up front: Mat Johnson’s Pym is one of the most inventive, satisfying, and delightful novels I have read in years, but it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The invention is Johnson’s desire to deconstruct Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and re-tell the story is a completely different manner. The result? A challenging intellectual puzzle for the reader, only partly because the spin-off has been from Poe. Delight because in the process of reverberating against Poe’s weirdness, Johnson explores our centuries old issue of slavery in the United States (and especially its aftermath), to wit the idea of “whiteness,” which Johnson acknowledges has already been peeled back by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and a host of other black American writers. In short, there’s a feast for the reader of Pym, but many of the demands are also on the reader.
Here’s Johnson’s opening sentence: “Always thought if I didn’t get tenure I would shoot myself or strap a bomb to my chest and walk into the faculty cafeteria, but when it happened I just got bourbon drunk and cried a lot and rolled into a ball on my office floor.” Oh, groan, another academic novel. Do we need that? Fortunately, that’s only a ploy to get somewhere else. Chris Jaynes—who has just been denied tenure—became his school’s token African-American English professor: Professor of African American Literature. Or, as Chris refers to himself: “Professional Negro.” But he didn’t play by the right rules. First, he refused to attend meetings of the Diversity Committee.
Worse, he veered away from African American Literature into “mainstream” American Literature, apparently stepping on the toes of other colleagues. If you think this sounds ludicrous, then you don’t understand anything about academic turf.
But it’s really Edgar Allen Poe’s writings which fascinate Chris, especially Poe’s only novel—one of the strangest beasts in the cannon of American literature. There’s an affinity Chris makes between Poe’s novel and the slave narratives at the beginning of African American Literature. As Chris explains to one of his oldest friends, “My work, it’s about finding the answer to why we have failed to truly become a postracial society. It’s about finding the cure! A thousand Baldwin and Ellison essays can’t do this, you have to go to the source, that’s why I started focusing on Poe. If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it.”
What better place than Poe’s narrative, which you may remember ends in Antarctica—a place about as white as it can get—with Pym disappearing into the whiteness. Or so Poe seemed to imply.
This is where Johnson’s novel becomes utterly fascinating. But first he has to get his own characters to Antarctica. With Chris, it’s easy because he discovers that Pym’s side-kick, Dirk Peters, supposedly lived to write his own narrative of what happened in Antarctica and published that book after returning to America. With his other friends—all black, including his own ex-wife—Chris needs further prospects for a visit to the continent. One is quite simple: sell bottled water by melting the continent’s pure ice, thus tapping into the craze several years ago of drinking designer water. But equally inventive is the explanation for Garth Frierson, Chris’s friend from childhood. The man is fixated on the landscape paintings of an American artist named Thomas Karvel, and Garth is lured to the continent because he believes that one of Karvel’s paintings was actually based on images of Antarctica.
Once on the continent, Chris and his friends have their own bizarre experience, equal to the characters in Poe’s novel—perhaps outdoing it. First, they discover that Pym is still alive, as white as he has ever been, two hundred years later. He’s been kept alive by a group of strange underground creatures who have fed him their food, the source of his incredible longevity. These creatures are totally white, perhaps because they live underground, but even their excrement is white. The fascination of Johnson’s tall tale is what segues into a kind of reverse Heart of Darkness, beginning with the African-American characters “exploring” a white world. But there are also asides to Moby Dick (“the whiteness of the whale”), and numerous other journey narratives of the past couple of centuries.
Some of the events strain credibility though we understand that Johnson’s use of fantasy often mirrors disturbing aspects of realism, especially for literalists who can rarely see beyond the surface of their current world. There are clues about that problem early in the preface where C. Jaynes asks, “In this age when reality is built on big lies, what better place for truth than fiction?” Yet for the most part, Johnson’s novel is a profound meditation on color, which his narrator returns to late in the narrative, stating, “Whiteness isn’t about being something, it is about being no thing, nothing, an erasure. Covering over the truth with layers of blank reality just as the snowstorm was now covering our tent, whipping away all traces of our existence from this pristine landscape.”
What fun but also what profundity. Mat Johnson’s Pym probes one of the on-going absurdities of our lives: How can the world be so white but also so colorful at the same time?
By Mat Johnson
Spiegel & Grau: 322 pp., $24
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.