AUGUST 25, 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.”
Jaynes compiles a modest band of eccentrics for the journey, all of whom, it is later revealed, harbor some sort of hidden agenda. These characters negotiate complex relationships to black identities and black communities. The “Creole crew,” as they are dubbed, consists of Captain Booker Jaynes, Christopher’s seafaring older cousin; Garth Frierson, a recently laid-off bus driver from Detroit who has an affinity for Little Debbie treats and Thomas Karvel paintings; Jeffree and Carlton Damon Carter, an intrepid gay couple whose willingness to join is rooted in an opportunity to document their adventures for their popular blog; and Angela Latham, silver-tongued attorney, budding entrepreneur, and Jaynes’s former love interest who, unbeknownst to him, decides to bring along her new husband, Nathaniel. In these characters, Johnson plays on American stereotypes to startling effect. On Jaynes’s initial meeting with his cousin Booker (“the world’s only civil rights activist turned deep sea diver”), Johnson deadpans: “He sat in the back of a room staring intently at the front door, Malcolm X style, which considering we were in an organic juice bar was a little heavy for the scene.”
The fact that Tsalal — the unexplored black utopia — may exist drives Jaynes to “the last continent,” where he and his unlikely crew happen upon Arthur Gordon Pym (miraculously alive after some 150 years) and, after a series of unfortunate events, find themselves enslaved by a colony of Tekelians (or as Booker colors them, “super ice honkies”). The savages of Johnson’s dystopia stand over seven feet tall and are unsightly at best: tree-trunk legs, colorless lips, thick beards, near-white faces, and tongues of alabaster. Their gums, as Jaynes describes, are slick and pale, shiny like porcelain, and they have long, pointy noses with cavernous nostrils. The Tekelians reek of fish and fashion the rawhide of skinned animals into cloaks. This is whiteness, says Johnson, the literal inverse of the Tsalalians of Poe’s imagination, in all its flawed and funky majesty.
Johnson’s greatest attributes resound defiantly: his near-Ellisonian understanding of the ambiguity of racial identity, his romantic obsession with nature, his search for perfection, both in the pristine arctic landscape and in the artificial beauty of Karvel’s paintings, and his concern that man’s desires, however good-natured or ill, are alike fueled by greed and selfishness. “What really mattered,” remarks an enslaved Jaynes,
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.