Mat Johnson’s PYM: A Historical and Satirical Fantasy

I was attracted to a novel with three letters: PYM. Picked randomly in the mystery section. Since I was in search of mystery works, I thought it would do. One other thing I did remember to consider was reading the first sentence:

“Always thought if I didn’t get tenure I would shoot myself or strap a bomb to my chest and walk into the faculty cafeteria, but when it happened I just got bourbon drunk and cried a lot and rolled into a ball on my office floor.”

I loved it. And the whole plot thing, which revolved around the discourse of Whiteness and Black in the Literary Mind. PYM attempted to unravel the only novel written by Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, (1838). Mat’s PYM starts with the premise that Poe’s Pym existed in real life, had an adventurous journey that left him in the Antarctica among a rare group of gigantic Neanderthals, and managed to hold himself together for two hundred years. Remember Jules Verne?–An Antarctic Mystery; The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.

Beyond the Neanderthals (whose typical shout is Tekeli-li, so they become known as Tekelians) lies the fantastical island of Tsalal, where Blacks that were never colonized live. Chris Jaynes quest, our narrator in PYM, the prof. without tenure, is to find out for himself the inhabitants of Tsalal for what they represent:

“And more important to me,” he says, “it meant that Tsalal, the great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland, might still be out there, uncorrupted by Whiteness. That there was a group of our people who did achieve victory over slavery in all its forms, escaping completely from the progression of Westernization and colonization to form a society outside of time and history. And that I might find them.”

Tracing Dirk Peters, the guy who accompanied Pym on his Antarctic adventure, is the first lead. A hybrid of white and Native American ancestry, with a head like “the head of most negroes.” In PYM, a higher percentage of Dirk Peters DNA screams Black, but he and his descendants on the Native American side would rather keep that part secret and celebrate everything else: Native American, German, Irish, English and Chinese. Besides, “Narratively, Dirk Peters needs to be half Indian despite his Negroid traits because there is no such thing as a half Negro, according to the American “one drop” social reality. Either you are a Negro, containing some African ancestry, or you are not; half whiteness is not allowed.”

What starts as a historical mystery, or even a geographical one seeking an isolated utopia, becomes a satirical fantasy. Mat dashes us all over the place—North America, South America, Antarctica, Africa—combining history and narrative in a way that’s entertaining and necessary. How he deals with race, slavery, colonization, globalization, love and loss reflect the multi-faceted landscape of the dreams and dangers that his characters have to go through, while advancing and complicating the narrative arc.

Most drama unfolds and resolves in the Antarctica, where the reader is made to appreciate each eccentric character’s obsessions, and why it’s necessary to have them: Meet a famous painter, Thomas Karvel (who could be a fictionalized Thomas Kincade) recreating alternative realities on the landscape of existing ones. Make remarkable documentaries, increase the traffic on their blogs, own intellectual and patent rights for all the discoveries. And the overall one: The crew that’s traveling as the Creole Mining Company has a business agenda: Water bottling. Cut and drill blocks of glacial ice, then ship it on tankers to the US. Make billions of money while relishing the comic catch line: Negroes on ice.

As for the narrator, he’s obsessed with Antarctica because “The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym held a vaunted position in the literature of the Antarctic, being as it was the first great text of this continent’s imagination. And when dealing with a place of such desolate reality, the imagination can be as important as the place itself.”

If you loved Poe, Jules Verne, Herman Melville and Ralph Ellison, are at home with clever mystery, adventure, satirical fantasy and travel/journey motif, then PYM is the novel for you.



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2 Responses to Mat Johnson’s PYM: A Historical and Satirical Fantasy

  1. TJH February 9, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    Your description makes it a must read. I’m hoping the book itself is not a let-down!

    • MB February 9, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      It satisfies. Even where it doesn’t deliver much mileage (structurally), you appreciate the effort and creativity.

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