Mat Johnson's 'Pym' re-imagines Poe's social satire

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By Michael Dirda
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 8:42 PM

Hats off, please, to Mat Johnson, author of this wonderful, black-humored novel - part social satire, part meditation on race in America, part metafiction and, just as important, a rollicking fantasy adventure. "Pym" is outrageously entertaining, a book that brilliantly re-imagines and extends Edgar Allan Poe's enigmatic and unsettling "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket."

In that novel, the only one he ever wrote, Poe describes how young Arthur Pym stows away on the Jane Guy, survives a mutiny of the ship's "Negroes," is reduced to cannibalism after being cast adrift and eventually makes landfall on a tropical island paradise, located somewhere in the Antarctic. Surprisingly, everything on Tsalal is black - not just the people and animals but even the water. Eventually, Pym and his "half-breed" companion, Dirk Peters, flee Tsalal in a small boat and find themselves drawn ever southward, as if by a magnet, into a world of white: White, ashy material falls from the sky; all the birds are white; an icy landscape looms. Then, in the last sentences of the narrative, the two men suddenly glimpse "a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow." End of book.

Disorienting throughout, Poe's novel isn't just a meditation on whiteness and blackness, but also a genuinely eerie story. Because of its lack of closure, though, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" inevitably encouraged continuations and explanations of its mysteries, most notably Jules Verne's "The Sphinx of the Ice Fields" and H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness." Mat Johnson's "Pym" is imaginatively worthy of their company.

Our story begins when Chris Jaynes, professor of African American literature at a "historically white" college in Upstate New York, is denied tenure. The only black male professor on campus, he has refused to join the Diversity Committee, attracts almost no students to his course "Dancing With the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind" and admits that he is mainly drawn to the work of Edgar Allan Poe. His replacement is, almost inevitably, a hip-hop theorist, who dresses "in carefully selected baggy jeans" and "other matching oversize pop culture juvenilia."

Understandingly depressed, Jaynes looks for comfort from an old childhood friend, Garth Frierson, a Detroit bus driver who has been recently laid off and now lives mainly on snack cakes. Aside from Little Debbies, Garth has only one other passion in life: collecting the art of Thomas Karvel, the syrupy-sweet Master of Light. Of one landscape of the Catskills, the fat man remarks, "Don't it make you all peaceful just looking into that world?"

Jaynes, however, is a serious collector, mainly of early slave narratives and rare works of 19th-century literature. His goal is "to understand Whiteness, as a pathology and a mindset." Poe's work, he believes, offers particular insight into "the primal American subconscious, the foundation on which all our visible systems and structures were built." Thus, when a favorite antiquarian book dealer offers Jaynes an otherwise unknown "Negro Servant's Memoir, dated 1837," he is excited, but this is nothing compared with his reaction when he sees its actual title: "The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters. Coloured Man. As Written by Himself." Jaynes immediately realizes that this is "the greatest discovery in the brief history of American letters." "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" wasn't fiction, it was fact.

"There truly had been something living down in Antarctica. Something large and humanoid in nature. Maybe it was a lost strain of Neanderthal." More important to Jaynes, it also means "that Tsalal, the great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland, might still be out there, uncorrupted by Whiteness." And, with luck, he just might find it.

So, the now-obsessed former professor outfits an all-black expedition to Antarctica. The crew is headed by his cousin, Capt. Booker Jaynes, the "world's only civil rights activist turned deep-sea diver." In vain, the captain warns his academic cousin that "life is too short to be reading more books by white people." The team also includes a gay couple, one of whom constantly films the action, and a woman who happens to be Jaynes's great lost love.

In Antarctica, the expedition uses as its cover an ice-mining operation, the captain figuring that stupid rich people will pay big bucks for bottles of ancient polar melt. One day, however, some valuable drilling machinery falls partway down into a huge crevasse. Our academic hero descends in a harness to try to retrieve the equipment from its precarious perch. When Jaynes peers farther below, he makes out a kind of underground cavern, full of snow and "chunks of ice the size of coffins." It was, he remarks, "already an impressive sight before one of the large spears of ice started to fall forward, giving movement to the static scene." He looks closer. "Except it wasn't falling forward, it was walking. Walking forward, arms swinging, along the crater floor. And then it was looking up to me." It was "in fact a shawled figure, one whose cloth now rippled with movement as the beast hustled forward."

I'll say no more of the plot of "Pym," except to underscore that Johnson manages to mix aspects of Poe's novel with Verne's and Lovecraft's, and that Little Debbies and Thomas Karvel are key elements in the extraordinary story. Further thickening the narrative are explanatory footnotes, an overview of critical theories about the abrupt ending to Poe's novel and mini-essays on slavery and black identity. Moreover, the reader gradually realizes that "Pym" is set in a near future: Detroit, Houston and Washington, D.C., have suffered terrorist attacks; and the wealthy are building biodomes to escape from possible Armageddon. There are even hints that the old theory that Earth is hollow might be true.

Above all, "Pym" is exuberantly comic, sometimes with buddy-film antics, but often with head-shaking incredulity over the insane ways of human beings. Jaynes first meets his cousin Booker in a bar in Lower Manhattan. "He sat in the back of the room staring intently at the front door, Malcolm X style, which considering we were in an organic juice bar was a little heavy for the scene." While the novel's second half grows as exciting as an Indiana Jones movie, it also continues to raise serious questions about race, ethnic prejudice and genocide: "Why are albino mice deemed worthy to be kept as pampered personal pets while their nearly identical darker brothers are viewed completely as pests?" Reminiscent of Philip Roth in its seemingly effortless blend of the serious, comic and fantastic, Johnson's "Pym" really shouldn't be missed.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday. Visit his online book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.


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