PYM by Mat Johnson

Book Quote:

“What I like most about the great literature created by Americans of European descent is the Africanist presence within it. I like looking for myself in the whitest of pages. I like finding evidence of myself there, after being told my footprints did not exist on that sane. I think the work of the great white writers is important, but I think it’s most important when it’s negotiating me and my people, because I am as arrogant and selfish a reader as any other.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (APR 3, 2011)

Chris Jaynes has just been fired from his position as the token black professor at a prestigious liberal arts college, and retaliates by visiting the president and snatching off his red bow tie. This none-too-subtle reference to the preferred attire of Leon Botstein, president of Bard College where author Mat Johnson also taught, launches the book as a satire, but gives little hint of the likability of its hero or the fascination of the study of race that will follow. Johnson turns the subject inside out, standing it on its head, looking at race with an outrageous accuracy whose aim falls on black and white alike. Forgive me, therefore, if I set the comedy aside for the moment and concentrate on the book’s intellectual underpinnings.

Much of the debate concerns the nature of blackness itself, beginning with the protagonist’s own racial identity. Jaynes, like the author himself, is a mulatto, “so visibly lacking in African heritage that I often appear to some uneducated eyes as a random, garden-variety white guy. But I’m not. My father was white, yes. But it doesn’t work that way. My mother was a woman, but that doesn’t make me a woman either.” Jaynes refuses to be confined within the expectations placed upon his race, but insists on defining himself in reference to white society. He boycotts the college Diversity Committee as a meaningless sham. He declines to teach the canonical black texts, looking instead to authors like Poe and Melville to discover “the intellectual source of racial Whiteness,” that “odd and illogical sickness” which he is convinced is the true source of the problem.

When the college lets him go, Jaynes is immersed in a study of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It was not a problem that I did not know this book, though I have looked at it since. In the first chapter that really caught fire for me, Jaynes summarizes the novel, making hilarious fun of its weaknesses, but also deconstructing its codes and showing why it is worth further study. Poe’s protagonist enlists on a whaler out of Nantucket. After surviving imprisonment, mutiny, shipwreck, and cannibalism, he reaches the Antarctic Ocean where he is washed up on an incongruously-sited tropical isle inhabited only by stunted natives so dark that even their teeth are black. The sole survivors of a treacherous ambush by the natives, Pym and his friend, a half-caste named Dirk Peters, set sail once more and reach the Antarctic ice-shelf. “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.” These are Poe’s last sentences, whose enigma, with its strong racial overtones, Jaynes finds more interesting than anything else in the book. By sheer luck (by no means the only authorial license in this splendidly tall tale), Jaynes comes across a crumbling manuscript written in a semi-literate hand that purports to be Dirk Peters’s account of the voyage. Realizing that Poe’s story was based upon true accounts, Jaynes enlists the help of a seafaring cousin called Booker and recruits five other black people to accompany him on an expedition to Antarctica in search of Poe’s race of ultra-white giants, dismissed by Booker as “super ice honkies.”

The rest is a fantasy-adventure in the manner of Rider Haggard or Jules Verne (who also wrote his own sequel to the Poe). Jaynes and his crew do encounter this mysterious race, whom they call the Tekelians, living in ice-tunnels underground. What follows is a re-enactment of racial history — cautious trading, capture, enslavement, and eventual escape. The actual story becomes a little tedious during the long sojourn underground, but Johnson’s observation of the changing dynamics among the black characters never palls; some seek accommodation with their captors, others attempt resistance, and still others record events for later media distribution. In a brilliant twist, Jaynes and his best friend eventually escape this world of literal whiteness only to encounter a metaphorical one, a huge bio-dome built by the painter Thomas Karvel (clearly Kincade), landscaped inside to replicate the perfect sunset world of one of his paintings. Welcome to a space the size of a football field filled with fauna and lavender and color, bushes of every hue, and a waterfall with orange carp swimming at its base. And recorded American talk-shows playing continuously at the four corners: “I got Rush over here by the kitchen because he’s the granddaddy. I got Beck going in the southwest corner. Northwest is O’Reilly, southeast is Hannity, I think. Honey, is southeast Hannity?”

But you do not read this book for the plot or even its fantastic environments, so much as for its intelligent and likable protagonist and for the author’s observations. Some of these are comically absurd, as in this woman bent on denying a heritage that is obvious to everybody else: “Honey, I got lots of Indian in me. I got Irish and I got a little French too. I got some German, or so I’m told. I even got a little Chinese in me, on my mother’s side. Matter of fact, I’m sure I got more bloods in me than I knows. But I do knows this. I ain’t got no kind of Africa in these bones.” Some are little wry asides in the footnotes: “I should say here that, in America, every black man has a conspiracy theory. […] This obsession with conspiracies is most likely due to the fact that our ethnic group is a product of one.” And he even has a few social observations that have nothing to do with race at all: “Americans love that last question, ‘Where are you from?’ They see it as an excuse to go on about their peculiar local identity and tell you everything about themselves as people without really offering anything personal at all.” Ouch!

I label my reading notes with subject tags for easy reference; seldom have I come across a book that touches on so many of them. The books dealing with race are too numerous to mention, but I am thinking especially of the classic I have read most recently, Huckleberry Finn, which Johnson now makes me see as both a statement and a critique of the American Whiteness myth. There are also numerous books with academic settings, those by David Lodge especially, but again I think especially of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, both of which also have ethnic overtones. For other recent satires, I would compare Ian McEwan’s Solar and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question; the latter (which does for English Jews what Pym does for American Blacks) has the more attractive protagonist, but Johnson’s Chris James beats them both on that score. There would also be entries under Adventure, Fantasy, and Survival. I realize, though, that I need to create a new category to address what seems to have become a major recent trend: the use of existing texts as a jumping-off point to address contemporary concerns. In the last year alone, I have read The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Scott, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd, and — older, but the most significant of the lot — Foe by J. M Coetzee, a reworking of Robison Crusoe from the perspectives of gender and racial equality. Crusoe lies behind Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym also, giving Mat Johnson’s reworking a literary heritage that underscores the basic seriousness of his intent. You may read the book for laughs, read it for its shamelessly non-PC shock tactics, read it for social insights, but what will remain in your mind its ability to frame the dialogue on race in a new and important way.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau; First Edition edition (March 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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April 3, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Humorous, Satire, Unique Narrative

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