Pym

by Mat Johnson (2011)

8/10

A highly entertaining, farcical examination of U.S. race relations through a story loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It’s as clever as it is entertaining, though I think anyone who reads it without first having read Poe’s original will be leaving a lot of enjoyment on the table.

My main criticism is that it’s not quite funny enough (and its theme is too serious) to work as pure farce, but because of its farcical leanings it fails at times with typical conventions of fiction such as realism and character development. It’s also too glib to reach a state of poignance, which given the subject matter and certain tragic ironies it very well could have exploited. Then again, there’s a dalmatian named White Folks, which is pretty damn funny, so that makes up for a lot.

What Johnson has created, however, is a fairly innocuous vehicle to discuss the quite sensitive issues of blackness, exploitation, self-loathing, and racial justice. To make it more earnest would also have made it vitriolic, so the fact that our protagonist Chris Jaynes is a mildly insecure, witty, biracial academic allows him to point out the faults in many different racial perspectives while also frequently reminding us how full of shit he is himself. In other words, Johnson has doled out an extremely generous scoop of sugar to go with our medicine.

I liked it enough to keep Johnson on my radar for future readings. The irreverent tone and rambling asides (including snarky footnotes) reminds me pleasantly of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, though this one isn’t as schizophrenic. All in all I would recommend it highly to just about anyone, though fans of Poe will certainly get a lot more out of it than most others.

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