The first thing you’ll probably want to know is whether you should read Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” before picking up Mat Johnson’s “Pym.” The answer is, that’s not really necessary. Johnson helpfully devotes 15 pages in the second chapter of “Pym” recapping the plot of Poe’s solitary novel and discussing its still-debated meaning. This background is all you need to appreciate this new, inspired-by-Poe, piece of imaginative fiction.
The novel’s narrator, Chris Jaynes, is a recently dismissed professor of African-American literature. He believes Poe’s enigmatic novel, maddeningly obsessed with motifs of black and white, is the talisman that can open up our understanding of race in America, especially the nature of “Whiteness, as a pathology and a mindset.” He seeks to discover, through literary detective work, “the primal American subconscious, the foundation on which all our visible systems and structures were built.” Sleuthing leads to grand adventure. Jaynes assembles an all black crew of six for a voyage to Antarctica to find “the great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland.” This quest is set within a satirical framework that allows Johnson to launch sallies against a slew of social and political targets.
A caution: You’re probably better off not reading reviews of “Pym” found in the mainstream press and magazines — or avoiding, at least, the type of review that spends paragraph after paragraph exposing too much of the plot, revealing too many of the critic’s favorite scenes, highlighting too many jokes and puns (for example, this one). I mean, please. “Pym” is a novel whose twists and turns and revelations you yourself deserve to encounter (and judge) afresh, without prior interference. Set aside those reviews for reading once you’ve finished.
One reason I enjoyed “Pym” is a nostalgic one, frankly. If you’re a reader of a certain age you remember living through what now appears, in hindsight, to have been a golden era of the American satirical novel. There once was a tribe of writers who yanked our chains, social and political. I’m thinking of the years that saw the publication of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Our Gang,” and the works of Terry Southern, John Barth, Gore Vidal, Robert Coover and others. First among them was Kurt Vonnegut, who sustained a long career of telling common truth to ignoble power. Who is extending that satiric tradition into the current day?
Based on the antic fun and strength of “Pym,” Mat Johnson may come to join that assembly of noble writers. The intelligence behind his satire is combined with a hearty sanity that reminds me of Vonnegut, especially.
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A version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.
Some amazing photos of the real Antarctica can be found here.