Tuesday, April 12, 2011

*Pym, by Mat Johnson

Spiegel and Grau
322 pp.

There are just some books that have the power to take you out of the real world for a while so that all there is is the story in front of you, and Pym is one of those.  This book fits the bill of that old phrase "a rollicking good yarn," while simultaneously offering its readers the author's ruminations on the issue of race.  Trying to pigeonhole this metafictional novel is not a simple task: it's got it all -- alternative history, fantasy, adventure, satire, and above all, comedy.  I think there were only a few moments when I didn't laugh while reading this book.

The story begins when Christopher Jaynes fails to gain tenure at the university where he's teaching.  Jaynes is the only black male professor on campus, and was hired to teach African American Literature.  But he would rather teach American lit., and because he believed that early American literature (including his favorite, Edgar Allan Poe) held the "intellectual source of racial Whiteness," and "the twisted mythic underpinnings of modern racial thought." He  offered a course called "Dancing With the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind" to explore his ideas.  He believes his work is helping to discover why America has not yet become a postracial society, and also that his work is helping to find a cure. As he explains to the bow-tied university president,  "If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it."  And Jaynes believed that Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (and some of his other works, but he is somewhat obsessed with Poe's Pym) was a key source in understanding the source of the assumptions of Whiteness.  But these classes were poorly attended, one of the reasons given to him for denial of tenure, as well as the unspoken reason that Jaynes refused to sit on the school's diversity committee. 

Jaynes also collects antiquarian texts, and one day shortly after leaving the university, finds an item in a catalog for a "Negro Servant's Memoir," from 1837.  As it turns out, it's not really a slave narrative, but rather a major find: an African American work written before the Civil War. As he begins reading, to his very great surprise, he finds that what he has is nothing less than the autobiography of Dirk Peters, the "half-breed" companion of Arthur Gordon Pym from Poe's novel.  Jaynes has an OMG moment where it comes to him that Pym's narrative may not have been fiction after all, and the proof is in his hands.  So if The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is true, then Jaynes realizes that

...Tsalal, the great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland, might still be out there, uncorrupted by Whiteness. That there was a group of our people who did achieve victory over slavery in all its forms, escaping completely from the progression of Westernization and colonization to form a society outside of time and history. And that I might find them.

Jaynes decides to go to Antarctica, using his cousin Booker and a crew completely composed of African Americans  to get him there. And this is where the story really takes off, so I won't add any more of the plot to avoid spoiling it for anyone who might be interested.  

Pym is one of the best novels I've read this year. The author's writing comes off naturally so there's no contrived feeling in his prose.  His characterizations are what make this book -- you will instantly recognize various character types as you read, making it all the more real.  Jaynes' best friend Garth is enamored of paintings done by an artist named Thomas Karvel (think Kinkade), and loves Little Debbie Snack Cakes, which he packs by the caseload for the stay in Antarctica. His cousin Booker is a civil rights activist, and constantly spouts off about white people and the system when it suits him. There's also a gay videographer who runs a video website, along with his partner; even in the worst of spots the camera is rolling.  Another character is an entertainment lawyer, who often stops the Antarctic action in debates about what they'll find and who will have the rights to it.  And along the way, the author provides his insights and commentary on other works that followed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, for example, Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness and a sequel to Poe's work by Jules Verne, besides delving into Poe's novel itself.

The action gets a little odd toward the end, but overall, if you're up for a great read, Pym is it. It satisfied my reading thirst for quirkiness, for comedy and satire and for a good story. Keep in mind though that it veers toward the fantastical, so if you can't suspend your disbelief, this isn't the book for you.   You don't have to read Poe's original work to get it, as the author does a great job of presenting the story in his novel, but on a personal level, I'd suggest doing so. I got a lot more out of Johnson's novel having read Poe's first -- the style is purposefully similar to the original and there are little nuances from Poe that Johnson also captures in his book without explanation to the reader.  It's definitely not a mainstream read -- and even though it's part fantasy,  it's also an excellent commentary on race and human nature all wrapped up in one of the funniest stories I've ever read.  While you're laughing, you're also learning.

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