Pym by Mat Johnson


Published: 2012 by Spiegel and Grau
My copy: Bought in paperback

Memorable quote: “That is how they stay so white: by refusing to accept blemish or history. 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 the pristine landscape.”

This satirical sequel (of sorts) to Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (which I read earlier this month) is many things: sometimes controversial; frequently chaotic; part campus novel / academic satire; part sci-fi adventure; and an unflinching examination of American racial identity. But it is consistently entertaining. Do you need to have read Poe’s original to appreciate Pym? I would say not, since Johnson includes a wonderfully needling précis which shies away from none of the problems with Poe’s narrative – just where did that dog come from, and where did it go –  without diminishing its power: “Pym whose failures entice instead of repel.” This is very much the reaction I had to the novel: I knew it was a bad book in so many ways but I was fascinated nonetheless. So no, you don’t need to have read Poe first, but if you have done so, then reading Johnson’s novel may prove more of a wryly knowing, and at times even cathartic, experience.

Johnson’s protagonist is Chris Jaynes, a unemployed literature professor freshly sacked for refusing to embrace his role as the “token” black faculty member and for choosing to lecture on Poe rather than the slave narratives he was hired to teach. When Jayne’s rare book “pimp” supplies him with a manuscript that seems to prove the events of Poe’s novel were true, he recruits an all black crew – including his commercial art and junk food obsessed best friend, the ex-girlfriend he isn’t remotely over, and a pair of wannabe You Tube celebrities – and heads for Antarctica hoping to find Poe’s lost black island of Tsalal, and perhaps a place where he finally feels he belongs.

Johnson is an equal opportunities satirist: although he raises what feel like some uncomfortable truths about racial perception he never shies away from revealing the prejudices of his black protagonists either. Many reviewers of this book mention Kurt Vonnegut and it’s a fair comparison: Johnson deals a similar heady mix of satire and sympathy. The novel is laugh out loud funny in places and I love the way it engages not only with Poe but with other staples of polar fiction and non-fiction (inevitably, at one point, a character proclaims they are “just going outside…”). The structure of Johnson’s narrative closely follows that of its departure novel, including its crevasse-like plot holes and dizzying changes of tone. This feat of literary mirroring is Pym‘s strength but perhaps also its weakness. Don’t expect a neat resolution here. At one point in his musings on Poe’s text, Jaynes comments on its abrupt and inconclusive ending:

[A]mazingly the reaction of the reader is not to throw the book across the room, as we are tempted to do with most literary disappointments, cop-outs, and blunders. Instead, our reaction is to grip it closer. To make our own connections and conclusions where there is no material provided.

If you agree with this assessment of Poe’s narrative then I believe you will recognise also the triumph of Johnson’s brave novel.  Pym is not an entirely satisfying read but then I doubt it was meant to be. But as a fast-paced boundary-defying adventure that also tackles some thorny social issues then I think you’ll be hard-pushed to beat this.

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