I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Antarctic exploration. Even when the Museum of Natural History put together an exhibit on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic on his ship Endurance, I didn’t get it. His ship was trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed, and while no humans died, if I remember it correctly, all the sled dogs were eaten along with one crew member’s beloved cat named Mrs. Chippy. This is what I took away from it: the tragic loss of Mrs. Chippy, not the bravery and heroism the museum was trying to impress upon me.
With this in mind, we come to Mat Johnson’s new novel, Pym, an account of another not-so successful trip to the Antarctic. Chris Jaynes is the only black professor at a predominantly white liberal arts college in upstate New York who has just been denied tenure for following his passion for Edgar Allen Poe by teaching a course called “Dancing with the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind” and refusing to participate as the only black faculty member on the Diversity Committee. After spending a few weeks drunk and curled up in a ball, he finally pulls himself together and decides the only way to deal with his rage and confusion is to literally follow in Poe’s literary footsteps and head to Antarctica in search of the fictional island of Tsalal, in search of the black-skinned, black-toothed natives described in Poe’s very weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It helps that he’s been entrusted with the alleged skeleton of Dirk Peters, Pym’s light-skinned African-American companion, which Jaynes brings with him on the expedition.
Jaynes puts together a crew made up of friends, family, and a couple of internet sensations who post their adventures online. As with many recent novels, this one has some sort of societal collapse lurking in the background—hinted at by the mention of the Dayton Dirty Water Disaster—but all we know is that soon after they arrive in the Antarctic their communications are shut down. What happens next can only be described as a freakish catastrophe, as they discover the Tekelians, a race of giant, aggressive, hulking white creatures—and the real Arthur Gordon Pym himself, who is apparently not fictional and has also managed to hold himself together for nearly two hundred years. The Tekelians quickly take the crew as slaves, being only slightly kinder to Jaynes as a result of his lighter complexion (Pym initially assumes he owns his fellow crew members). It feels a little strange to use the word “funny” to describe the maiming, starving and humiliation the characters endure, and yet, at times it flirts with slapstick. At one point, Jaynes’ cousin Booker (a disillusioned Civil Rights activist turned deep sea diver) has to relinquish his characteristic anger because he falls in love with a female Tekelian.
For a brief time, they seem to have found an escape when Jaynes’ best friend, Garth (a recently laid off bus driver who escaped harm and enslavement by giving away all his Little Debbie snack cakes to the Tekelians), finds the bunker of his hero, painter Thomas Karvel, modeled, at least stylistically, on Thomas Kinkade, that master of those goofy—sorry, heart-warming—light-in-the-window paintings. Karvel has constructed a “biodome” for himself and his wife where they do things like feed dye into the water to make it just a bit bluer and pipe in previously taped shows of all his conservative radio heroes to drown out the sound of the generators. The Karvels announce that if Jaynes and Garth want to stay in the make-believe “cottage” in the biodome, they’ll need to grow their own food and they are put to work preparing a site to plant. That’s right, they kind of become sharecroppers.
Pym, while often hilariously funny, also pays its respects to the literary history that comes before it, all the way back to the first slave narratives. Johnson plays with the landmarks of black culture throughout the novel, and like all good comedy, the joke’s on all of us, as when Jaynes reveals he was bullied by a kid named James Baldwin, or that his cousin Booker has a dog named White Folks. And keep in mind that the guy who takes Jaynes’ place at the college is an expert on hip hop, playing into the flawed desires of the administration—that it welcomes black men, as long as they’re “black” in the right way.
As far as explorers go, Johnson’s modern cast of characters doesn’t fare as well as Shackelton’s crew on the Endurance, which is really saying something. In fact, only two characters survive: Jaynes and his friend Garth. They also happen to be the ones with the most genuine motives, each hoping to make their most cherished dreams a reality, which in the end, is all anyone wants. This is ultimately, Johnson’s point: complexions aside, what we all share, once we are allowed to live a life any richer than meeting our most basic survival instincts, is the freedom to chase after our kookiest ideas.