Just read Mat Johnson’s new satiric novel Pym, which riffs off Poe and more modern trends in Antarctic exploration. The big fish in this sea, as we might expect, is “whiteness,” and “recently canned” lit professor Chris Jaynes heads south to find it. Along the way he finds the skeleton of Dirk Peters and the still-living Arthur Gordon Pym himself, as well as the Yeti-smelling “snow honkies” of Tekeli-li.
It’s a lively, fast-paced novel that wants to be more than it is. The ex-professorly voice is fun, esp when the narrator assumes a pan-academic vision & re-contextualizes, esp at the opening of many chapters –“I am bored with the topic of Atlantic slavery” (160); “I have always loved quitting jobs” (216); “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…” (7).
Johnson wants to do what Toni Morrison says is a fundamental task for the study of American literature — figure out what whiteness is. Sometimes the cartoonishness of the characters and the narrative — snow monsters! apocalypse! reclusive artists! inter-species sex! — gets away from him. I must say, though, he writes a nice final paragraph, when the sole survivors of the southern expedition (and perhaps of the civilized world) arrive on the shores of Poe’s all-black island —
Rising up in our pathway was a man. He was naked except for a cloth that covered his loins. He was of normal proportions, and he was shaking his hand in the air, waving it, and we, relieved, waved ours back at him. Past him, minutes later, we saw that he was joined in welcoming us by others, women, more men, and the offspring both had managed. Whether this was Tsalal or not, however, Garth and I could make no judgments. On the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority. (222)
As the rhythm of those sentences suggest, Johnson’s at his best when he’s channeling Poe, and the faux-lit crit passages early in the novel are great fun. I do think, though, that it may have been a mistake on my part to re-read The Narrative itself before embarking on Pym. Johnson does a find job summarizing Poe, but it’s hard to match EAP’s combination of foreboding and claustrophobia. Many of Poe’s scenes, of imprisonment, cannibalism, madness, get re-configured here.
There’s a future syllabus here, too — Poe to Life of Pi to Pym. Lots of Richard Parkers to chew on.