four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Mat Johnson
user_rating: 
0

A-PymMat Johnson, a teacher in the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, explores racial politics and identity in contemporary America in his fiction and nonfiction. Pym is his third novel.

The Story: After he's denied tenure for refusing to join the campus diversity committee, African American literature professor Chris Jaynes, the only black faculty member, stumbles across an 1837 manuscript that seems to authenticate the events described in Edgar Allan Poe's bizarre (and only) novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Determined to redeem himself and locate The Narrative's fabled island of Tsalal, a "great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland ... uncorrupted by whiteness" where the natives and their surrounding landscape are utterly black in color, Jaynes assembles a motley all-black crew of friends, crusaders, entrepreneurs, and an old flame, and sets off for the South Pole.
Spiegel & Grau. 336 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780812981582

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Before long, the novel veers into territory so fantastical that character development seems very much beside the point. ... It's no easy task to balance social satire against life-threatening adventure, the allegory against the gory, but Johnson's hand is steady and his ability to play against Poe's text masterly." Adam Mansbach

Portland Mercury 4 of 5 Stars
"Pym is a gleefully inverted Heart of Darkness; a fearless send-up of literary racism that offers a frank window into contemporary racial neuroses. ... It's insightful, blazingly unique, and funny as hell." Alison Hallett

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"A commentary on racial identity, obsessions and literature should not be as funny as Pym, but Johnson makes light work of his heavy themes. Johnson's warped reframing of Poe's Pym narrative turns an obscure adventure story uncomfortably seeped in black-and-white imagery into an exploration of what horrifies Americans now." Jennifer Kay

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Pym works--really works--because it's so funny. And erudite, without condescension. Reading Pym is like opening a big can of whoop-ass and then marveling--gleefully--at all the mayhem that ensues." Maggie Galehouse

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"It often seems as if Mr. Johnson is improvising as he goes along, but his satire of what Chris dubs ‘blackademics' is delightfully on the nose. ... Jaynes never learns much about the white pathology and mindset, but Mr. Johnson knows plenty about the character types he skewers." Sam Sacks

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"Pym is part throwback to the yarns of Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, part exegesis of racial politics, part A.S. Byatt-style literary treasure hunt. ... But Johnson's culture-driven humor does not quite come fast or furious enough for Pym to fully succeed as social comment." Ethan Gilsdorf

Critical Summary

In this "relentlessly entertaining novel" (New York Times Book Review), Johnson skewers contemporary culture, deftly balancing social satire with an old-fashioned (if wacky) adventure tale that simultaneously lampoons the 19th-century racial assumptions encapsulated in Poe's original Narrative. As a result, some passages can read more like literary criticism than fiction, but Johnson's wit and insight keep the story--his own unique slave narrative--moving forward. While the Boston Globe complained that clumsy plot developments, a lack of humor, and an overbearing sense of its own importance limit the novel's usefulness as social commentary, even that critic admitted that, "as a kind of dreamscape, Pym oddly succeeds." Most critics found the book "polyphonous and incisive, an uproarious and hard-driving journey" (New York Times Book Review), and readers will surely agree.