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Mat Johnson’s latest novel “Pym” is a formal tribute to Edgar Allan Poe’s only long-form work “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”—but it is a functional critique. An adventure novel through and through, “Pym” follows in the tradition of American seafaring narratives set up by Poe, whose “Narrative” influenced Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” It is perhaps natural that Americans—themselves the offspring of the continent that was for so long the ‘last frontier’—would be drawn to the vast, mysterious seas to quench their desire for adventure in as-yet unexplored domains. Hidden at the heart of many oceanic enterprises, however, has been a darker, more understated motive of exploitation. Slave trading, uprooting of indigenous populations, environmental profiteering—all of these have been a part of the practice of sea exploration for centuries. “Pym”—unhindered by the burden of characterization or detailed and nuanced prose by its claim as an adventure novel—satirizes these tendencies and shows that they are still very real, while also fueling a fast-paced, plot-driven narrative.
“Pym” follows Chris Jaynes, a recently fired professor of African American literature obsessed with “The Narrative.” He believes that it holds the secret to American race relations and humanity’s obsession with “whiteness.” He gets hold of evidence that suggests Poe’s novel was actually based on real-life events and, with nothing to lose, decides to join a crew heading to the Antarctic on a fresh-water bottling venture. His aim is to search for Poe’s “Tsalal”—a tropical island near the South Pole inhabited by black natives who have never come into contact with the white population or had to endure the subsequent complications. Its discovery would not only affirm for Chris his racial identity and academic career, but also save his romantic life: his ex-wife—whom he hopes to win back—is one of the lawyers accompanying the all-black crew.
One constant throughout the ever-changing backdrops of “Pym” is its sense of humor. This is partly due to the colorful cast that accompanies Chris—as well as the pronounced characteristics of Chris himself. As a black academic, his first-person musings always toe the line between a street-ready “brother” and a self-conscious and neurotic scholar. One side of him constantly satirizes the other, since the two often seem in opposition, and the result is an idiosyncratic and often hilarious narrator. The eccentricities of the others—a gay couple who run an adventure blog by night and work as water engineers by day, a money-obsessed entertainment lawyer, his newly-wed wife who is a self-proclaimed soror of Delta Sigma Theta, a jaded and paranoid sea captain, and an overweight Detroit bus driver—make the dialogue amusing, if not slightly ludicrous. When the crew first comes into contact with the mysterious creatures in the belly of the Antarctic, one of them holds his hand out to Chris. Shocked, he can’t move. His crew responds: “‘You going to leave him hanging?’ Jeffree asked, incredulous, to which the others agreed in a united chorus of ‘Don’t leave him hanging.’”
Indeed, the quirks of the characters are often overstated, as are the many issues that “Pym” confronts. For the most part, this is a successful technique. When exaggerated and framed in a foreign setting like the South Pole, capitalistic greed, racism, and the underlying human instincts that drive these vices are revealed as the absurdities that they are. Nathaniel the entertainment lawyer says, “we are going to be very famous. We are going to be very famous, and very, very rich,” in the face of the mysterious and beautiful discoveries they are making in the Antarctic. It’s a disapproving nod to the history of exploration and an exasperated laugh at the humanity that never learns.
In its many caricatured themes and characters, however, detail is lost. Much of “Pym” passes by hastily, in murky chunks of viciously swift and careless prose. The love story between Chris and his ex-wife is poorly developed, and when it is, it is juvenile—and even worse, full-on cheesy. “She didn’t even flinch at the L-word. She just got a little tear in her eye, which she wiped on her glove, where it froze. It had been almost a decade since I had told her that I loved her, and last time she didn’t cry at all. I did. ‘And I will get you out of here. I promise,’ I told her. And we both believed me.” This subplot isn’t the only element that suffers. No insight is given to the inner world of the many potentially engaging characters—not even that of Chris. Despite the many traumas, the ensuing emotions are merely suggested. The framing device may be to blame: the preface, penned by Chris, confesses to “an insecurity in [his] abilities as a writer.” Though the stylistic failures are in line with Chris’s acknowledgement, it seems unlikely that a professor of literature would pay so little heed to narrative nuance.
One can hardly begrudge “Pym” these disappointments, though. As an adventure novel it is wildly successful: the plot almost moves itself along, and its lack of detail may be a necessary cost. It speaks volumes of Johnson’s skill that “Pym” remains engaging despite its flaws. Perhaps Johnson was expressing his own hopes for his work when Chris says of Poe’s protagonist: “Pym that is maddening, Pym that is brilliance, Pym whose failures entice instead of repel.”
—Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
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