Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: "Pym"

Mat Johnson's Pym (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), a dark re-imagining of Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, makes for an engrossing, provocative, and thoroughly entertaining read.

Chris Jaynes, a recently-fired literature professor and collector of American slave narratives, sees his route back into the glow of the academic limelight when a book dealer sells him a manuscript written by Pym's traveling companion, Dirk Peters. Poe's story, he realizes, was no story, but only a lightly fictionalized account ... and Peters knew what happened next, after the bizarre ending in Poe's novel that has spawned endless speculation.

Persuaded by Peters' narrative, and determined to find the mysterious Tsalal recounted in Poe's novel and discover the truth behind the shrouded figure revealed at the end of the book, Jaynes recruits a motley (and all-black) crew, which comes to include his snack-cake and landscape-art loving best friend; his former girlfriend and her new husband; his cousin, a civil rights activist turned diver; and a pair of gay filmmakers. Ostensibly on an expedition to mine pack ice and turn it into bottled water, the band sets up camp in Antarctica, where an accidental discovery sets in motion a chain of events none of Jaynes never anticipated.

Johnson's work, besides being an often-hilarious action-packed romp, is also a biting satire on American race relations, a look into a scary near-future (made even scarier by the frightening events going on in the world at the moment), a meta-commentary on authorship and textual accuracy, and a pitch-perfect extension of Poe's novel. I very much enjoyed the many allusions to Poe's story (and I'm sure there were some I missed) and to its progeny by the likes of Verne and Lovecraft, as well as the explanatory footnotes and scholarly meditations on Poe's Pym.

A brilliant inversion of Poe's tale, which I can do nothing but recommend.

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