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Pym

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

After finishing Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin two Friday nights ago, I thought about turning at long last to Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a natural successor, as I mentioned in writing about Bloodlands. More natural, indeed, than I even realized, what with the publication last week of Judt and Snyder’s joint enterprise, Thinking the Twentieth Century, which was reviewed in the Sunday NYT Book Review yesterday by Francis Fukuyama. (The book is based on conversations between Judt and Snyder before Judt’s death two summers ago.)

Instead, the next morning I found myself downloading Robert Crais’ new crime novel, Taken. I was a fifth of the way through when I stopped to write about it a day later, a week ago yesterday. By last Wednesday, the momentum was too much. I got home late that evening from the department’s annual dinner, read another 50 pages before going to sleep, then awoke at 4:30 Thursday morning and read the last 115 pages. Pretty good. Crais’ best in a while.

Once again, I had to figure out what to read next. Judt’s Postwar? Friday night, I paged through it, then saw the Fukuyama’s review on-line of the Judt-Snyder book and considered that. But I was leaning toward a novel, and at the top of my list has been Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I wasn’t feeling ready for a 500+ page commitment just yet, so I returned to my list of books to keep in mind, explored a few, then reminded myself of why Mat Johnson’s Pym was on the list. The reason was Adam Mansbach’s review in the Sunday NYT a year ago today, in which Mansbach begins:

“If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed,” the narrator, Chris Jaynes, proposes early in “Pym,” Mat Johnson’s relentlessly entertaining new novel, “then we can learn how to dismantle it.” For Jaynes, the only black male professor at an “intimate, good but not great” college, the project of making whiteness visible has led to an obsession with “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,” the only novel by Edgar Allan Poe.

It’s as good a place as any to begin. Toni Morrison has written that “no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe,” and his single work of long fiction is a simmering trove of racial terror. Poe’s protagonist, Pym, is a hapless seafarer whose adventures culminate in the discovery and exploitation of Tsalal, a tropical island located improbably close to Antarctica and populated by primitive natives so dark even their teeth are black. “Horrors from the pit of the antebellum subconscious,” Jaynes calls them.

I was ready for an adventure. I downloaded it, began reading, and now I’m some 90 pages in. It’s fascinating, constantly surprising, with a passage every few pages that is completely captivating. For instance, early on, the protagonist discusses the Diversity Committee at Bard College, the small school (a real school) on the Hudson River in New York where, as part of the novel’s plot he has been denied tenure by the president. Talking with a new colleague, Jaynes explains that

“the Diversity Committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff. It allows the faculty and administration to point to it and go, ‘Everything’s going to be okay, we have formed a committee.’ People find that very relaxing. It’s sort of like, if you had a fire, and instead of putting it out, you formed a fire committee. But none of the ideas that come out of all that committeeing will ever be implemented, see? Nothing the committee has suggested in thirty years has ever been funded. It’s a gerbil wheel, meant to ‘Keep this nigger boy running.'”

Coincidentally, Improv Everywhere, which has been re-mastering and re-releasing videos of some of their old missions, today put out a new version of Meet a Black Person, in which comedian Colton Dunn went to Aspen in 2006 to offer just that service.

In Pym‘s world, one where dozens of African-Americans in Gary, Indiana, can believe that their background is more Native American than African-American until, to their dismay, DNA testing by a University of Chicago proves otherwise, a “Meet a Black Person” stand sounds entirely believable.

Watch the video. Read the book.

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