This is the part where I’m supposed to summarize in a few hundred words a novel whose narrative takes a “blackademic” on a mission to Antarctica to find a mythical (and somehow tropical) island populated by a tribe of Africans but who instead is hijacked by a race of seven-foot-tall albino-white “snow honkies” (or “super ice honkies”) and forced into slavery in underground caverns until he escapes and hides away in a reclusive artist’s biodome, all in a near-future where all of humanity north of the Antarctic continent has been annihilated by terrorist attacks, a supervirus, and/or a water shortage.
Piece of cake, right? But as we learn in Mat Johnson’s Pym, even cake can lead to our downfall.
Pym is one of the most entertaining novels to come out of 21st-century Texas. It’s literary fiction infused with fantasy and adventure, a social-racial satire that skewers Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel. At the same time, it shows a deep appreciation and even love for it. Johnson, a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, is a self-professed Poe devotee, but he is aware of Poe’s character flaws, including the racism that seeps into much of his writing—The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) in particular.
Johnson uses this racism to brilliant effect in Pym. English professor Chris Jaynes is denied tenure at a Hudson Valley college after refusing to serve as the token black representative on the school’s Diversity Committee. Also, his class, ”Dancing With the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind,” isn’t drawing sufficient enrollment. Jaynes, a collector of early slave narratives, comes across a manuscript indicating that Poe’s novel may be fact-based and that a race of black-skinned, black-toothed islanders (Poe’s “Tsalalians”) might be living in monoracial bliss near Antarctica. (Although not essential, I’d recommend reading Poe’s novel first. It’s a quick read, dark and bizarre. Johnson quotes extensively from it, often to hilarious effect.)
Jaynes calls on his older cousin, Booker Jaynes, a “civil rights activist turned deep-sea diver,” to lead an expedition to the white continent in search of a black civilization. Instead of finding Tsalal, that “great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland … uncorrupted by Whiteness,” the Jaynses’ self-proclaimed “Negroes on Ice” crew of seven makes landfall in Antarctica. After a snafu over Little Debbie snack cakes, the group is taken captive and enslaved by the Tekelians, a race of white-robed giants living in ice caverns. The only human among the Tekelians offers no help—because the now-200-year-old Arthur Gordon Pym is ignorant of the abolition of slavery.
Unable to seek help from the outside world because of some unidentified Armageddon, the crew gives in to its fate. So goes the first half of the novel.
Though Pym threatens to spin out of control from there, it never does. Johnson is a ballsy writer, but he’s also an intelligent one, always knowing when to tap the brakes. Jaynes narrates the absurdity with an academic’s level-headedness, and even the fantastical elements never seem too fantastical. After all, the global terrorism, water shortages and racial divisiveness in Pym are based on reality. So if real life is already so ridiculous, why not take in stride a Thomas Kinkade-like painter living in a biosphere of his own making at the bottom of the world, or a tropical island inside the Antarctic Circle housing “a collection of brown people” on “a planet on which such are the majority.”
Like his narrator in Pym, Johnson is biracial and light-skinned, and has taught at a small, mostly white liberal arts college. Many of his books are explorations of race, including the graphic novel Incognegro (2008), which involves a light-skinned black man “passing” as white to investigate lynchings. Training his crosshairs on Poe’s narrative seems a logical next step. Toni Morrison wrote, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (sound familiar?), “Poe deploys allegorical mechanisms in Pym not to confront and explore … but to evade and simultaneously register the cul-de-sac, the estrangement, the non-sequiter that is entailed in racial difference.”
Johnson has chosen an appropriate target for his satire. Luckily, he has his target’s skill for masterful storytelling, not to mention his own brand of humor that will appeal to all readers. As far as the laughs go in Pym, it doesn’t matter if you’re Tsalalian or Telekian.
David Duhr is fiction editor at the Observer and Fringe Magazine, and co-founder of WriteByNight in Austin.