Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hearts of Darkness, Hearts of Whiteness

I spent the last few days devouring Mat Johnson's wonderful novel Pym.  It's got something for everyone:  sci-fi, an adventure tale, an exploration of darkness and whiteness, apocalypse, paradise, thoughts on education and literature, a meditation on Edgar Allen Poe, lots of thoughts on slavery (past and present) and slave narratives, and lots and lots of humor.

I added this book to my evergrowing to-read list after reading this review in The Washington PostThe Post's reviewers seldom lead me astray, and I must say, after reading the book and re-reading the review, I agree with every word, especially the conclusion:  "Reminiscent of Philip Roth in its seemingly effortless blend of the serious, comic and fantastic, Johnson's "Pym" really shouldn't be missed."

But what is it about?  Chris Jaynes has his tenure bid denied and he sets out on a trip to try to discover if the polar tropical island described in the only novel that Edgar Allen Poe ever wrote might really exist.  Jaynes is African-American, as is the crew that he takes with him.  Along the way, as they're drawn ever more deeply into the polar whiteness, they discover an alternate race.  Or is it alternate?

Even though the book draws heavily from the Edgar Allen Poe novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, I also see more than a hint of Conrad here.  Of course, in this novel, all the references are turned around and sometimes inside out.  Instead of going ever more deeply into dark wildness, the batch of characters travel into frigid whiteness.  Johnson gives himself all sorts of ways to explore how we think about race, how we structure our societies, what it means to resist oppression, how we see the Other . . . all those things which make the book a treat for English major geeks like me.  But there's plenty here for other folks too:  those who like buddy narratives, those who love the sci-fi of British writers like Verne and Lovecraft (I could tell there were lots of allusions I missed, but it didn't subtract from my enjoyment), those who love after-the-apocalypse stories.

And did I mention how funny the novel is?

In the review, it sounded almost heavy, and I probably wouldn't have checked it out if the library had had any of the other books on my list.  I'm happy that they didn't.  I'd hate to have missed this book.  It's a quick read, but at the same time, it gives the reader much to consider--a great treat as we head into summer.


Hannah Stephenson said...

This book sounds great--I'm planning to buy it now!!

Kristin said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think!