- PYM: A Novel
Mat Johnson, a writer of African, Black Muscogee, and Irish ancestry who identifies himself as an “octoroon,” has written the most wildly inventive comic novel in some time, taking as his source material Edgar Allan Poe’s only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. At first blush, the task of wringing humor out of the Poe text might seem a Sisyphean one: Arthur Gordon Pym is decidedly irony-challenged and may be the most racist novel ever produced by a major American writer. Yet in Johnson’s sure hands, the stone rolls easily up the comedic slope.
The author’s alter ego is Chris Jaynes, an English professor at a small northeastern liberal arts college, who is denied tenure because he insists on teaching Poe in a course entitled “Dancing with the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind” rather than African American literature and because, as the college’s only male African American faculty member, he refuses to serve on the institution’s diversity committee. He is replaced by Mosaic Johnson, “Hip-Hop Theorist,” a brother who is more than happy to “represent.”
Jaynes is obsessed with Poe generally, and Arthur Gordon Pym specifically, because, as he states, “If we can identify how the pathology [End Page 133] of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it.” “Horrors from the pit of the antebellum subconscious,” he calls Arthur Gordon Pym.
Published serially in 1837 and 1838, Poe’s novel deals with the adventures of the eponymous Arthur Gordon Pym, starting on the whaleship Grampus. For its first two-thirds, it is a rather conventional novel of the sea, spun with Poe’s peculiar view of human nature and imbued with a vague sense of racialized dread. It is filled with mutinies, piracy, shipwrecks, and storms. Just as Herman Melville (who was inspired by Pym) drew upon the real-life story of the 1820 sinking of the Essex in writing Moby Dick, Poe draws on the wreck of the brig Polly in 1811, whose crew drifted for six months and over two thousand miles before being rescued.
In the last section of the novel, Poe’s story takes a hard colonialist H-Rider-Haggard-like turn, as Pym and his new shipmates aboard the Jane Guy reach Tsalal, a tropical island near Antarctica. The Tsalalians are a people so black that even their teeth are black. Their souls are so black that they are terrified of anything white. When the captain and crew of the Jane Guy decide to exploit the resources of this newfound land, using Native labor to do it, the Tsalalians do the unthinkable and fight back. The novel is an allegory of white southern planter fears of slave insurrections.
Other writers have parodied Poe or written in his idiom (notably George Stade in his underappreciated 1979 novel Confessions of a Lady-Killer [Norton]), yet few have achieved a result as successful as here. Johnson’s novel mimics the structure of Poe’s work, and Jaynes’s journey mirrors Pym’s but inverts it.
Jaynes’s life changes when his rare book dealer sells him an odd, unpublished manuscript entitled “The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters, Coloured Man. As Written by Himself.” Peters is the sole Native American character in Arthur Gordon Pym, a Crow who ends up accompanying the title character to Tsalal and beyond. Jaynes’s research leads him to Peters’s one living relative and winds up leaving him in possession of not only Peters’s manuscript but his human remains as well.
In one of the novel’s best scenes Johnson skewers the obsession [End Page 134] of Henry Louis Gates and others over the discovery of ancestry through DNA. Jaynes finds himself at a meeting of the Native American Ancestry Collective of Gary, Indiana (NAACG), a group made up of African Americans with Native blood. His attendance coincides with a momentous event for the NAACG, the day the members get their “proof.” A professor from the University of Chicago is going to...