|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Jason Parham on Pym by Mat Johnson
August 25th, 2011
"Color, for anyone who uses it, or is used by it, is a most complex, calculated, and dangerous phenomenon."
– James Baldwin
IN 1838 EDGAR ALLEN POE PUBLISHED his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It was, at best, a meek adventure tale surrounding the sea voyages of Arthur Gordon Pym and his chance encounter upon Tsalal, a tropical locale near Antarctica. The island, to Pym's surprise, was inhabited by men "of a more muscular and brawny frame," savages draped "in skins of an unknown black animal" and whose complexions were "jet black, with thick and long woolly hair." Unsuccessful in an attempt to exploit Tsalal's natural resources, Pym and Dirk Peters, the only other survivor after a surprise ambush by the natives, escape by canoe and head farther south, drifting toward some arctic fantasia. The novel then comes to an abrupt end. Poe writes:
The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us ... And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to retrieve us. But there arose in our pathways 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.
Where Poe ends, author Mat Johnson begins. This final passage is the catalyst for Johnson's stunning revision of the racial allegory and action-packed adventure comedy that is central to Pym. By Johnson's own admission, he wanted to create a novel about ice monsters. Instead, he gives us the tale of Christopher Jaynes, the only black male professor at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York who, denied tenure for refusing to sit on the school's diversity committee, sets sail for Antarctica after finding evidence (a manuscript by Peters, The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters) suggesting Poe's story was, in fact, true. Jaynes, already obsessed with Poe as the intellectual source of "whiteness," believes that in the pages of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket "was the very fossil record of how this odd and illogical sickness formed." Like the author, his character is of mixed-race heritage, though Jaynes notes, "I often appear to some uneducated eyes as a random, garden-variety white guy" and later says that he had to "overcompensate for my pale skin to be accepted," learning "to talk blacker, walk blacker."
is what our ambitions had led us to. That we were in this moment because of the futures we imagined for ourselves. That even without the snow beasts, we were enslaved. By our greed, our lusts, our dreams.
With gallows humor, as the book twists and turns to an unlikely end, Johnson exposes Poe's limitations and turns the original work on its head. In doing so, Johnson also illustrates that the belief in race as foundational or central to selfhood is a limited imagining. In the novel, blackness — and by extension whiteness — is an elusive signifier, a symbol and a sign that takes multiple shapes. This, then, is Johnson's world: one sprawling landscape of blurred, shifting identities.