REVIEW | Pym by Mat Johnson

Pym by Mat Johnson

image via Goodreads

title: Pym: A Novel [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Mat Johnson
genre: literary fiction
pages: 322
originally published: 2011
source: New York Public Library

First person narration can be tricky, but Mat Johnson has a sense of voice that rivals Junot Diaz. So clear, so compelling. As I read, I wanted to follow Johnson’s main character, Chris Jaynes, anywhere he went. Until he decided to leave the States (and reality) far, far behind…

The premise of this book is really quite genius: the self-described token black professor at a small, predominately white liberal arts college finds himself without tenure after favoring teaching Edgar Allen Poe to authors of color. The object of Jaynes’ fascination is Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Johnson does an amazing job of allowing us into Jaynes’ psyche as he deconstructs Poe’s novel, which he sees as part of the “intellectual source of racial Whiteness.” In this part of the book, Johnson soars as Jaynes takes us through Poe’s work and explains its literary and institutional significance. Strong voice, compelling argument and raw social commentary. Near perfect. Up until this point in the narrative, I was in love with this book.

Then we go to Antarctica. Through a turn of events (which I won’t cheat you out of discovering on your own), Jaynes is lead to believe that the incidents outlined in Poe’s novel may not be so fictitious after all. Given the opportunity to, in part, retrace Pym’s journey and go to Antarctica, he accepts in hopes of finding Tsalal, an island of pure blackness (which Poe described with much terror) which Jaynes imagines to be the “last untouched bastion of the African diaspora.” Unfortunately, once the ship docks, Johnson loses me a bit.

My problem is not with the journey; my problem is not even with the sequence of events that border on science-fiction/disaster porn. My problem is with the way the characters react (or don’t) to these events. Typically, when an author decides to dive into the realm of science fiction or adventure, as Johnson absolutely does in the last half of his book, either:

  • the story takes place in a world where a specific set of magical/heightened/supernatural/etc rules and conditions are consistent and we, as readers accept them as the reality of the story OR
  • the story takes place in reality as we know it and something unusual/strange/supernatural/world-shattering happens, and the characters react accordingly.

A beautiful example of this is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: when the house starts shifting and changing, people freak out, then adapt, then re-approach their new reality. In Johnson’s story, when reality as Jaynes knows it is turned on its head, the characters just seem to keep moving through the plot without much reflection, except in terms of considering potential profit. In addition, some pretty major occurrences are mentioned and then never reacted to thoroughly or revisited…which I think, in the end, is not a problem of story as much as an issue with character development.

Jaynes is a wonderful character. Consistent. Complex. Evolving. But he was the only one flushed out and developed to that extent. The rest of the cast of characters seemed to be more like different sized shadows of people rather than fully realized individuals, with only 2-3 defining characteristics, as opposed to the dynamic, compelling personality given to Jaynes. When they stand side by side as the same bizarre events unfold, it’s hard to completely give yourself to the world Johnson creates given their reactions (or lack thereof).

But back to Johnson’s genius: he crafts the story utilizing the same structure as Poe’s Narrative. As I read, I kept noticing how Johnson took some of the most salient story elements from Poe’s piece and reappropriated them for Jaynes’ journey (if you’re curious as to which story elements he chose, message me, as I don’t want to give away any major plot points here!). Super clever, and done in such a subtle way that it’s in no way gimmicky or forced.

Rubric rating: 7. I would love to read more by Johnson…as long as it’s set north of Antarctica.

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