Monday, April 25th, 2011
The Short Take:
Wow! What a witty romp Mat Johnson has concocted for our enjoyment! His adventure-fantasy satire gleefully pokes at racial identity and even slavery (!?!). His writing is so sly, his approach so original — I just loved it.
We’ve seen spurious sequels and twisted takes on classic books, but this one is something special. E. A. Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Johnson’s the starting point — not exactly the best known piece of American literature (and, blessedly, you need absolutely no prior knowledge of that book to fully enjoy this one). Johnson’s protagonist, Chris Jaynes, discovers that fantastic tale may have some basis in reality and sets out to discover the truth.
Jaynes is a wonderful creation — equally self-aware and self-deluding — he makes a brilliant narrator for this novel. Johnson surrounds this pale-skinned African-American with an all-black team of unlikely crew mates who cope with every obstacle they encounter in wildly different ways.
The entire plot is full of astonishing twists that both parallel with and depart from Poe’s original. But it’s the stories within this book — centered around things like DNA testing, an ongoing riff on a popular artist found in shopping malls, the ineffectiveness of diversity committees — that really strengthen the reader’s enjoyment while cleverly getting across the author’s point.
A Little Plot:
Chris Jaynes doesn’t get tenure because he refuses to serve on the diversity committee (and he’s the only professor of color) and would rather teach Poe than African-American literature. Fortunately his attention is diverted from his woes by an old manuscript written by a real Dirk Peters — the supposedly fictional black character in Poe’s supposedly fictional narrative.
Both the manuscript and the novel describe the land of Tsalal, a land populated only by black people with no European interference. Jaynes determines to find this land and puts together a group to help him: his former (and still loved) fiance and her lawyer husband; an overweight and out-of-work bus driver; a pair of gay, would-be heroes; and his civil rights activist cousin.
They head to Antarctica to harvest glacier water to subsidize their journey where they encounter another type of human, also referred to by both Peter and Poe. That’s when those tales because all too real.
For more about Mat Johnson, Pym, and the other influences Poe’s only novel had, visit the author’s website by clicking here.