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Sep 13, 2012

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Fiction and nonfiction releases from Mat Johnson, Hector Tobar, Ayad Akhtar, Mike Birbiglia and Steven Brill.

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Mat Johnson's new book picks up where Edgar Allen Poe's only novel left off. (Spiegel & Grau)

Searching For Black Utopia ... In Antarctica

by NPR Staff
Aug 17, 2011 (Tell Me More)

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Mat Johnson's novel Pym is a modern-day sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's only novel.

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Mat Johnson's book Pym is a modern-day sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

Poe's 1838 novel is a seafaring adventure in which Pym and his crew land on an island, off the coast of Antarctica, populated only by black people.

In an interview with Tell Me More guest host Tony Cox, Johnson says Poe's novel starts as a regular tale but turns into science fiction.

He describes the end of Poe's work: Pym leaves the island for Antarctica, and then sees a white figure standing on the coast. The ice opens up in a chasm, the boat enters, and the book ends. That's it.

"The more surreal it gets, the more it starts to become sort of like him putting his racial subconscious onto the page. It's a 19th century Southern racial subconscious, and it becomes absolutely bizarre," says Johnson.

Johnson's sequel picks up where Poe left off — in Antarctica. The hero, professor Chris Jaynes, persuades his friends to take on an adventure to the South Pole. When they arrive, they discover that the white figure from Poe's novel is actually from a population of massive albino snow creatures.

The main link between Poe's and Johnson's novels is the idea of a black island — a place where black people thrive and survive, detached from racism.

Johnson says that in Poe's book, the island's indigenous population is so black that even their teeth are black, and the water is purple. And although this place horrified Poe, Johnson found it fascinating. This is the utopia that Johnson's hero is searching for in his mission to Antarctica.

Throughout Pym, Johnson includes overt racial symbolism, such as the albino snow creatures and the all-black crew. But there are also subtle symbols, like Little Debbie snack cakes, that frequently pop up throughout the pages.

Like Johnson, Jaynes is biracial. And the issue of race comes up frequently as Jaynes comes to terms with his identity.

"As I started, I didn't think about it. But as I was spewing all these things out there, it ended up speaking to my own struggles with biracial identity," says Johnson.

For Johnson, the process of writing Pym was tough. He took nine years, writing seven or eight different versions.

"A lot of times when you're working on a project, you're working so close to it; and eventually you walk away from it, and you see the larger patterns," he says.

And interspersed between elements of race and identity is humor.

Johnson says he wanted to deal with some big ideas, but do it in a way that was somehow so entertaining that readers barely notice until later.

"I wanted you to be engaged in the moment. And if something is funny, you tune in and get enjoyment from it."

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Excerpt: 'Pym'

by Mat Johnson
Jun 16, 2011

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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. A couple days of this and I couldn't take it so I ended classes a week early and checked into the Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast in Harlem to be among my own race and party away the pain. But mostly I just found myself back in that same ball some more, still on the floor, just at a more historically resonant address. My buddy Garth Frierson, he'd been laid off about six months before, and was nice enough to drive all the way from Detroit to help a childhood friend. This help mostly consisted of him sitting his bus driver ass on my rented bed, busting on me until I had enough shame to get off my own duff and try to make something of myself again.

By then the term was over, graduation done, campus vacant. I didn't want to see anybody. The only things worse than the ones who were happy about my dismissal were the ones that weren't. The sympathy, the condolences. It was all so white. I was the only black male professor on campus. Professor of African American Literature. Professional Negro. Over the years since my original hire I pushed away from that and insisted on teaching American literature in general, following a path toward my passion, toward Edgar Allan Poe. Specifically, I offered the course "Dancing with the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind" twice a year, regardless of enrollment. In regard to the number of students who chose to attend the seminar, I must say in my defense that the greatest ideas are often presented to empty chairs. However, a different theory on proper class size was cited in my denial letter from the president, and given as a reason to overturn the faculty's approval.

Curing America's racial pathology couldn't be done with good intentions or presidential elections. Like all diseases, it had to be analyzed at a microscopic level. What I discovered during my studies in Poe's and other early Americans' texts was the intellectual source of racial Whiteness. Here, in these pages, was the very fossil record of how this odd and illogical sickness formed. Here was the twisted mythic underpinnings of modern racial thought that could never before be dismantled because we were standing on them. You don't cure an illness by ignoring it or just fighting the symptoms. A Kleenex has never eradicated a cold. I was doing essential work, work affecting domestic policy, foreign policy, the entire social fabric of the most powerful nation of the world. Work that related directly to the way we lived our daily lives and perceived reality itself. Who cared if a bunch of overprivileged nineteen-year-olds with questionable hygiene could be bothered to rise for the 8 a.m. class? Who cared if I chose to not waste even more precious research time attending the toothless Diversity Committee?

"Just get your books, dog. And get out of there. Pack up your place, focus on what you can do. You want, you can come back with me to Detroit. It's cheap, I got a big crib. Ain't no jobs, but still." Garth and I drove up the Taconic in the rain. I was still drunk, and the wet road was like lines on a snake's back and my stomach was going to spill. Even drunk, I knew any escape plan that involved going to Detroit, Michigan, was a harbinger of doom. Garth Frierson was my boy, from when we were boys, from when I lived in a basement apartment in Philly and he lived over the laundromat next door. Garth didn't even ask how many books I had, but he must have suspected.

Because I had books. I had books like a lit professor has books. And then I had more books, finer books. First editions. Rare prints. Copies signed by hands long dead. Angela walked out on me a long time ago and my chance of children walked with her, but I had multiplied in my own way. I'd had shelves built in my office for these books, shelves ten feet tall and completely lining the drywall.

The campus was dead. A vacant compound hidden from the road by darkness and hulking pines. The gravel parking lot was empty, but I made Garth park in the spot that said president-?violators will be towed on principle. When you get denied tenure at a college like this-intimate, good but not great-your career is over. A decade of job preparation, and no one else will hire you. If you haven't published enough, people assume tenure denial means you never will. If you have published and were still denied, people assume you're an asshole. Nobody wants to give a job for life to an asshole. And they didn't have to in this economy. Outside of a miracle, after denial I would be lucky to scrounge up adjunct teaching at a community college somewhere cold, barren, and far from the ocean. A life of little health insurance, bill collector calls, and classrooms with metal detectors, all compliments of this college president, Mr. Bowtie. The least I could do was shit in his space for an hour.

We trudged. The building looked like an old church that had lost its faith, every step up the stairs a sacrilege. Garth huffed, but followed. I'd chosen an office in the back of the top floor to dissuade students, but my lectures had done a better job of this. My office was a narrow A-framed cathedral with a matching window. A shrine to the books that lined the walls and my own solitude.

"Bro, I'm not going to lie to you. I got a lot of books in here," I said, letting him in first.

"You do?" Garth asked me. Because I didn't.

It was empty. I should have been greeted with the hundreds of colored spines of literary loves, but there was nothing. My books were gone. My office had been cleared out. Everything was gone: my pictures, my lamp, my Persian rug, everything not school property or nailed down, gone. A chasm of vacant whitewashed bookshelves opened up before me.

Excerpted from Pym by Mat Johnson Copyright 2011 by Mat Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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stackofbooks (Mito Habe-Evans)

What We're Reading, March 8-14

Mar 8, 2011

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David Brooks' The Social Animal combines neuroscience with philosophy to uncover the secrets of happiness. Or, if long life is your goal, consult The Longevity Project, which digests life lessons from an 80-year study of 1,528 10-year-olds. Finally, an all-black crew explores whiteness on an expedition to - where else? - Antarctica in the wickedly satirical Pym.


The Social Animal

The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

by David Brooks

David Brooks' The Social Animal begins with the announcement that "This is the happiest story you've ever read. It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives." The book isn't a story, however, so much as a giant parable about the power of our unconscious. It suggests how we might improve ourselves and our world by understanding how we really think. In the tradition of Rousseau, Brooks illustrates this through narrative. He invents two characters, Harold and Erica, whom we follow from childhood to grave. Watching their lives unfold, we're treated to commentary about how and why these characters behave and believe as they do. They become vehicles through which Brooks highlights a dizzying range of philosophy and research - everything from the Greek concept of thumos, to IQ assessments, moral reasoning and behavioral economics. The Social Animal is a sort of "theory of everything," a valiant attempt to explain human behavior through a multitude of ideas and characters.

The Social Animal is ambitious and entertaining. But it's also messy. Midway through, its characters devolve from protagonists to mouthpieces who deliver prescriptions for culture, business and politics. On occasion, Brooks veers into satire, which muddies his intentions. Are we supposed to admire his characters or mock them? Oddly, for a book that says it's about our emotional inner realm, there's little of emotion depicted here. Neither Harold nor Erica suffers from the daily insecurities and neurosis that plague most people. Mostly, they face concrete, defined problems in their lives - which they solve promptly, using street smarts and research. In the end, The Social Animal is very much like the unconscious it explores: it synthesizes a wide range of ideas creatively, yet is unwieldy and elliptical. One senses there's more to be illuminated. — Susan Jane Gilman, Reviewer for All Things Considered

Hardcover, 448 pages; Random House; list price, $27; publication date, March 8


The Longevity Project t

Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study

By Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin

The Longevity Project has two big things going for it: universal appeal and a sterling pedigree. Who doesn't want to know the secrets of long life? And how better to uncover them than by tracking 1,528 bright and healthy 10-year-olds through their entire lives? Over 90 years the project charted nearly 10 million pieces of data on these kids' character traits, habits, personal lives, career paths, ups and downs and ultimate fates. Its founder, Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, wasn't interested in longevity. His thing was how to predict achievement. (He invented the IQ test still in use today.) Terman's successors seized the chance to address diverse questions: How does personality affect health? Is it better to be an optimist or a worrier? How does divorce (your parents' or your own) affect your lifeline? Does it help to believe in God?

There's scarcely a page of this slender book that doesn't predict its revelations will startle and amaze you. This is the rhetoric of self-help books, and it would be OK if the authors really delivered. On that I have to give a mixed report. Does it surprise you to hear that people who are conscientious, prudent and persistent live longer? Well, then consider what the authors call "one of the biggest bombshells" of their study: "Cheerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts!" (Too much optimism doesn't serve you well when life disappoints.) Some other myths get busted. Worrying can be good, especially if you're a widowed guy who might otherwise neglect your health. A high-stress career doesn't shorten your life - as long as you stay on the "healthy pathway," which involves a lot of friends. Interesting. But don't expect to learn how much this or that trait contributes to longer (or shorter) life. There's presumably lots of fact and analysis beneath this book's pronouncements, but the authors think their readers have no appetite for that kind of thing. I would have appreciated a little bit of it, though, to help decide how much to believe the sweeping pronouncements. — Richard Knox, NPR Health and Science Correspondent

Hardcover, 272 pages; Hudson Street Press; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 3


Pym

A Novel

By Mat Johnson

Mat Johnson's bitingly satirical Pym pushes along at breakneck speed, driven by the protagonist's obsession with Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The protagonist is the "blackademic" Christopher Jaynes, a professor of African American Literature and self-described "octoroon" who is fixated on "the pathology of Whiteness." When he is denied tenure for teaching Poe instead of Ralph Ellison, the professor is freed up to chase down the veracity of a manuscript he finds suggesting that Poe's outlandish novel was based on fact. The alleged facts include the presence of white, Sasquatch-like snow monkeys in Antarctica and an island of black people with black teeth. Manuscript in hand, Professor Jaynes sails south aboard the good ship Creole with an all- black crew and a dog called White Folks. The snow monkeys (or "snow honkies " as one character calls them) enslave the crew of the Creole. Except, that is, for one crew-member who buys his freedom with junk food. As Johnson piles on the ironies, events build to an apocalyptic climax.

I am not sure I would want to meet Mat Johnson. Or try and befriend him. I fear he would skewer my foibles like so many shish kebabs. But I enjoyed reading his book. Pym is an amusing, dazzling and, at times, excruciating meditation on race. Among his many targets: diversity committees, Morehouse Men and the "Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade. Johnson upends the centuries-long literary discussion of what it means to be black in America and asks what it means to be white in America. Reading Pym makes you feel like a kid on a bike holding on to the back-bumper of a moving car. The rushing wind makes you laugh so hard you forget the danger. — Luis Clemens, NPR Senior Editor

Hardcover, 336 pages; Spiegel & Grau; list price, $27; publication date, March 1
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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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