Mat Johnson
Spiegel & Grau ($24)

by Will Wlizlo

Edgar Allen Poe wrote only one novel in his career, and it was utter trash. An adventure yarn that took readers on a misanthropic journey over the high seas to the ends of the earth, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is racially paranoid, riddled with pseudoscience and plot holes, and concludes with a pull-the-rug-out bit of authorial laziness. But for all the book’s faults, its ending has perplexed, maddened, and enchanted American readers for nearly 175 years.

At the tale’s end Pym has escaped Tsalal, an exotic island paradise located near the South Pole and populated by murderous savages with such dark features that even their teeth are more ebony than ivory. Pym navigates back to the iceberg-lined channels surrounding the perimeter of Antarctica in a canoe and there sees something quite inexplicable:

And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway 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.

And that’s where Poe abandons the story. The narrative’s preface implies that Pym survives the encounter, but Poe offers no account of what Pym does next or what the opalescent creature might be. Another of Poe’s fanciful creations? An allegory for God?

Many scholars and novelists have tried to tie together Pym’s loose ends, most notably Jules Verne withThe Ice Sphinx and H.P. Lovecraft with At the Mountain of Madness. Mat Johnson is the latest to enter the fray with his debut novel, Pym. But unlike those before him, Johnson uses studious pastiche and connects Poe’s original story to the larger threads of “whiteness,” African-American literature, and contemporary racial politics.

Pym’s narrator is Chris Jaynes, a recently fired African-American literature professor. Jaynes, a self-described “professional negro,” became more interested in teaching run-of-the-mill, pallid American literature than African-American literature. “If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed,” Jaynes explains, “then we can learn how to dismantle it.” After Jaynes discovers he lost his job to a “hip hop theorist,” his rare book dealer brings him a literary curio: a slave narrative that suggests the far-fetched Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym may not, in fact, be fiction at all. Questions unlock more questions for Jaynes, who researches the manuscript voraciously. Before long he’s booked a seafaring voyage of his own with the intent to uncover once and for all what really happened on Pym’s fateful, unbelievable journey.

Jaynes’s crew is full of flawed, complicated black men and women like himself. His cousin, Booker Jaynes, is a former Black Panther-style activist turned intrepid sea captain. Jeffree and Carlton Damon Carter, suspected gay lovers, provide some updated minstrelsy that Johnson (or Chris Jaynes, for that matter) would probably argue is compulsory for any piece of African-American fiction marketed toward middlebrow whites. Chris Jaynes’s ex-girlfriend, Angela, stands in as an archetypical black business professional. Finally, Chris’ childhood friend, Garth, is the overweight sidekick—the Sancho Panza to Jaynes’s quixotic quest. Altogether the crew comprises a menagerie of black stereotypes, which Johnson artfully subverts.

Take Garth, for example. Morbidly obese, out of work, and constantly complaining, Garth cuts an unsympathetic figure. He’s first presented as a doltish, lazy, ungrateful stereotype of a black man. Yet the reader soon finds his infatuation with a Dutch landscape painter to border on grad student geekiness and his poignant critique of American culture to be leveled equally at blacks and whites. “Goddamn global warming,” Garth kvetches at one point. “Ain’t our fault. It was all them Escalades in the ghetto.”

Not only does Johnson toy with character tropes, but he also mimics the style, flaws, and structure of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym itself. In the original story, Poe writes Pym’s beloved dog, Tiger, into a scene where Pym is trapped below a freighter’s deck. Tiger appears without explanation and then, when Pym escapes his confines, just as inexplicably disappears. How did he get there? And what happened to the dog afterward? Likewise, Johnson writes in a dog (named White Folks) that enters and exits the story as breezily as Tiger. White Folks’ appearance in the novel is both a tongue-in-cheek nod to Poe’s careless writing and a critique of white-black interaction. It’s a small detail, but indicative of how thoroughly Johnson reflects and reinvigorates his source material.

Johnson turns white utopias on their heads as catastrophe leads the crew to explore an ice cavern, where they find a race of large, intelligent, albino hominids. These are the figures that Poe describes as the “perfect whiteness of the snow” and Booker Jaynes affectionately dubs “Snow Honkies.” The white creatures lead boring lives in their subterranean citadel—a monotony of controlled subsistence. When Jaynes and company arrive, the white giants enslave the black explorers. White culture is so nefarious and infectious, Johnson suggests, that even at the limits of the earth those of African descent can’t escape the legacy of colonialism. Chris masterminds an escape and he and Garth find the hideout of the elusive Dutch painter, who has built an apocalypse-survival bunker modeled after his own paintings. Like all premeditated communities, the painter and his Technicolor paradise have no hold on social reality and ultimately perish.

After a tall tale that both entertains and questions white heterodoxy, Pym ends on an unsatisfying note: while Johnson explores many variations of racial integration, both in America and Antarctica, ultimately he and Jaynes settle for a different type of separatist utopia, one entirely populated by blacks. “On the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people,” Jaynes remarks with relief as he and Garth land their canoe on a foreign beach, “and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority.” The ruins of three white civilizations smolder in their wake. People will never be able to reconcile their most superficial differences, the ending seems to say, so we might as well seek happiness in isolation and sameness.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011