In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath. You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it. The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.
The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe. He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job: appearances, appearances. Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica, and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters. It isn’t fiction, it’s fact! What a scoop! He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.
The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end. Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose. It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:
“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.
“Well, are your family landowners?” At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.
“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly. “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market. You probably have quite an estate to attend to.” Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness. The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.
“Is this true?” he muttered.
“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.
“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”
Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA. And among some people today, they probably are not yet. The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures. And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict. It all gets pretty crazy: it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.
Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with. And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years. And what was it all based on?
As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple. What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look? Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction? In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner. So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?
Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example. Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym. It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book. And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?