Friday, June 17, 2011

"Pym" by Mat Johnson

Summary: Chris Jaynes is a professor who, rather than accepting his expected role as teacher of African-American literature, had been looking to make Whiteness visible through an analysis of literature by white authors, most particularly Edgar Allen Poe's only novel, the critically-panned The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  Days after being denied tenure and losing his job, a depressed Jaynes has an unpublished autobiographical narrative brought to his attention, written by a presumably fictional character from Poe's work.  Deciding that Poe's story must actually be true, Jaynes sets out to find the mysterious all-white Antarctic figure from the book in hopes of discovering Tsalal, an all-black island also from the novel.

Musings: It's hard to sum up Pym in a few words because this odd, satirical, absurdist, yet meaningful book is full of so much.  Johnson mirrors Poe's structure (which Jaynes roundly critcizes) in Pym with perfect effect.

There's a lot of commentary on individuals' interpretations of Whiteness and Blackness without a singular message.  Jaynes refuses to do what the "whites" expect of him as an African-American man (teach African-American literature; serve on the diversity committee), but his refusal achieves nothing either. His focus on race also belies his own discomfort as a light-skinned person who is sometimes mistaken for white.  Later in the novel Johnson weaves in how easy it is to "other-ize" another being (which goes both ways) as the crew of Jaynes' ship to Antartica is enslaved.

Admist all this is weirdness and randomness, like giant albino snow creatures and Jaynes' friend Garth's obsession with a cheesy landscap painter (a la Thomas Kincaid).  And there's a lot issues beyond race addressed, such as the crew's bickering over movie rights when they discover unknown Antarctic creatures.

I enjoyed the book, though I left it without a clear sense of analysis.  That doesn't mean it wasn't a fun, weird, trip, though.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

No comments:

Post a Comment