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In 'Pym,' A Comic Glimpse Into Poe's Racial Politics

Mar 2, 2011 (Fresh Air)

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If all you think of when you think of Edgar Allan Poe are poems like "The Raven," or tales of terror like "The Fall of the House of Usher," you might not realize that Poe was a funny guy. I'm not talking belly laughs, but more a creepy comic vision that savored the absurd in desperate situations — like an annoying corpse whose darn heart just won't stop thumping; or — spoiler alert! — a whodunit where the killer turns out to be an orangutan. It's this strain of ghastly humor in Poe that Mat Johnson mines in his new novel, Pym, an inventive and socially sassy play on Poe's one and only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

Poe published the novel in 1838, trying, as always, to make some money from his writing by cashing in on the public's thirst for novels and newfound curiosity about Antarctica. Masquerading as authentic journal entries, the tale chronicles the voyages of a young seafarer, Pym, who suffers through mutiny, shipwreck and cannibalism. But, buried alive deep in Poe's icy adventure tale is the ultimate scary subject in 19th-century American literature: slavery.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym keeps hallucinating about race: a black crew member heads the mutiny; Pym and some survivors of the shipwreck drift to an island near the glacial whiteness of the South Pole where, lo and behold, all of the inhabitants are black. Even their teeth are black, and these folks are terrified of whiteness. At the abrupt end of Poe's novel, a giant white-shrouded figure rises up out of a frozen chasm and ... well, that's all he wrote.

Not surprisingly, the fragmented jumble of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was not a best-seller, and Poe himself later dismissed it as "a very silly book." Silly, certainly, and also haunted by the specter of race. Mat Johnson, riffing on the material, seems to have a blast chasing all the pale ghosts out of Poe's ice caverns and updating this master text of anxious white fright.

In Johnson's Pym, our hero, Chris Jaynes, is a professor of African-American literature, or, as he calls himself, a "Professional Negro." When the novel opens, Jaynes has just been denied tenure for refusing to serve on his college's diversity committee and for "going off the farm," as he puts it, to teach a course on his passion, the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The course, in a twist on a Toni Morrison title, is called "Dancing With the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind," and Jaynes explains its focus this way:

My work, it's about finding the answer to why we have failed to truly become a postracial society. It's about finding the cure! A thousand Baldwin and Ellison essays can't do this, you have to go to the source, that's why I started focusing on Poe. If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it.

The college doesn't buy Jaynes' rap about the key to America's race problem lying in classic white texts. Instead, he is promptly replaced with a hip-hop theorist. But Jaynes is undaunted. He decides to re-create the voyage of Poe's hero, Arthur Gordon Pym. Like Pym, Jaynes literally seeks to travel to the source of pure Whiteness — the South Pole — but this time in the company of an all-black crew. Jaynes has found a manuscript that suggests that the lost black civilization near the Pole that Poe described in his novel might be real, and he wants to make contact. Instead, he and his crew discover a prehistoric world of giant white people, or "Snow Honkies," who enslave them.

I'll stop there, but Johnson's inventiveness never does. This is a comic nightmare in which Little Debbie Snack Cakes and the luminous paintings of a Thomas Kinkade-like schlock artist play pivotal roles. Jaynes even comes up with intra-racial jokes about global warming: one black guy trekking through the tundra with Jayne surveys a crack in the South Pole ice, and immediately denies responsibility by saying: "Ain't our fault. It was all them Escalades in the ghetto."

Loony, disrespectful and sharp, Johnson's Pym is a welcome riff on the surrealistic shudder-fest that is Poe's original. As Johnson implicitly points out, these traditional "heart of darkness" narratives take on a whole different hue when the explorer's telescope is seized by other hands.

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