PYM by Matt Johnson


I believe I posted a review of PYM after I read it two summers ago– but I have recently been moved to revisit it as I work on a chapter of my dissertation. In short, this is the wildest story I think I might have ever read. I like the blurb on the back of my paper back that describes it as “Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, and Jules Verne having a beer.” Yes! I read environmental lit, and so I read Pym as the greatest climate change fiction piece that’s ever been written- and it is so great because it explores how histories of race and racism are central to how the world works today, even when so many describe society as being “post racial.” To do this with utter hilarity and inventiveness is an amazing coup.

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, PYM, is and isn’t. It’s a satire, that’s for sure: The eponymous character may sound familiar because he is also the titular character of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The entire book is a photo negative of Poe’s only novel.

The book is narrated by Chris Jaynes (through his ghost writer, Mr. Johnson), a literature professor who has just been denied tenure at a small liberal arts school in NY. Jaynes scholarship, riffing on Toni Morrison’s monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, finds “no American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe.” For Jaynes, Poe’s writing gets at the historical and conceptual root of racial whiteness. To understand racial, and other, issues with the world, Jaynes feels its crucial to critically read Edgar Allen Poe.

When it turns out that the story of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket may be true Jaynes mounts an Antarctic expedition to go find the final resting place of Pym and see if the fantastic events and places of the novel actually exist (you’ll get a hilarious and insightful summary of the novel in the course of reading Pym, so don’t feel you need to read Poe first).

I won’t spoil the fun, but suffice it to say this expedition is doomed to find exactly what its looking for and then some, including (in the words of our cast of characters): “Eden, as in the garden of,” “snow-honkies,” “White Folks the dog,” “[Bill] O’Reilly, because he’s the grandaddy” and one 200-year old pickle of a man. It’s a wild, funny, ride that everyone should read.

Availability:  USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Must Read

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