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 present the results of his DNA testing. One group member says, “DNA testing isn’t just for criminals trying to get out of jail free; it’s for decent Indians trying to prove their heritage.” “I’m going to send my baby to college on this evidence, just you watch. We tried to join the Sioux Nation a few years back, and they had the nerve to turn us down. We’ll see about that now,” another says. Unfortunately for the members of the NAACG, the test results turn out to be hilariously unsatisfying.
Johnson reimagines Peters as a black man (or at least a person of mixed African and Native ancestry). He correctly notes the similarities between Poe’s description of the Native and those of enslaved Africans in his other writings. Racial minorities for Poe are marked by ugliness and characterized by physical deformity, in these instances particularly bowlegs.
Jaynes decides that if Peters really existed, and if his narrative parallels Poe’s supposedly fictional tale, then Poe’s account must be true in its entirety, plagiarized from Peters’s manuscript. With an all-black crew, the former college literature professor sets out to find Tsalal, toting along Peters’s remains.
Whereas the trajectory of Poe’s story was a journey to whiteness that must first pass through the blackness of Tsalal, in their effort to reach the black paradise of Tsalal, Jaynes and his companions must pass through the brilliant, endless whiteness of Antarctica. Just as Pym and the crew of the Jane Guy are attacked by the Tsalalians whom they would seek to enslave, Jaynes and his friends are captured and enslaved by a race of ice-dwelling “snow honkies.”
To say more would be to spoil the fun. Among the targets of Johnson’s sharp-edged humor are the schlock art of Thomas Kinkade (“The Painter of Light”), snack-food deliciousness and American overconsumption, and right-wing survivalists. As in the [End Page 135] best stories, you the reader spend a few days with the characters, and when the novel ends, you wish you could share more time in their company. Poe’s book inspired Herman Melville and H. P. Lovecraft. Jules Verne wrote a sequel to Arthur Gordon Pym entitled Le Sphinx des Glaces. If there was a future for Arthur Gordon Pym, perhaps there is one for Chris Jaynes, too.
Jace Weaver is the Franklin Professor of Native American Studies and director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia. He is the author or editor of eleven books. His most recent book is Notes from a Miner’s Canary (U of New Mexico Press, 2010).