Saturday, February 12, 2011

Books: Bizarre art-by-the-pound stately pleasure dome.

About three-fourths of the way into Mat Johnson's new novel, Pym, we meet a hack landscape painter, unapologetically modeled on the master of mall art Thomas Kinkade, who, after adopting an apocalyptic millennial strain of Tea Party ideology, uses the massive profits from his schlock empire of oddly illuminated landscapes to create a self-contained biosphere hidden in the icy wastes of Antarctica. There he lives with his wife – a perpetually peeved housewife who secretly grows and smokes pot in the biodome as a tactic in a losing war against boredom and domestic disenchantment – trying to perfect the internal landscape of his arctic layer, quixotically wrestling with his purchased reality in an impossible effort to impose his saccharine aesthetic on the world around him. Eventually this artist will be required to take up arms to defend his bizarre art-by-the-pound stately pleasure dome against an invading army of abominable snowmen. And women. And children.

And that doesn't even rank as the weirdest thing in the book. In fact, I don't know that I would even put that up in the top ten.

The log line on Pym is simple. A recently canned African American lit prof finds the journal of Dirk Peters, a supporting character in Edgar Allan Poe's maddeningly eccentric novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which proves that (with some minor liberties) Poe's tale was essentially a true story. In Poe's work, there appears a tribe of black arctic natives (so black that even their teeth are black) that, the ex-professor reasons, must still exist: a black society never touched by the colonialism, slavery, and exploitation that has been the curse of the native African population and its diaspora. Though a series of unlikely connections, an all-African American exploratory crew, led by the professor and following Poe's novel and Peters' journal, sets out to find this lost world of blackness.

And it goes all to hell.

Poe's original Narrative is a grand mess of a book. Characters appear and disappear, the plot regularly flirts with incomprehensibility, and the ending of the book is so abrupt and provocatively illogical and unsatisfying that it is, perhaps justly, widely ignored by the reading public. Those that do read it are often compelled to impose a scrim of explanatory order on it. If you're Herman Melville, Jules Verne or H. P. Lovecraft, you basically rewrite the thing. Melville, who unlike Poe had actual experience with life at sea, stripped everything he thought was nonsense out of the book and recycled what was left into Moby-Dick. Verne and Lovecraft created works, The Sphinx of the Ice Field and "Mountains of Madness" respectively, that defused the work and placed it comfortably within the realm of their own creative endeavors (which is a fascinating case study in the anxiety of influence, as Verne's optimistic humanism and Lovecraft's darkly smoldering nihilism couldn't be further apart; it's as if both author's needed to complete Arthur Gordon Pym in a way that would make Poe their spiritual father, but ended up making two Poe's). Lesser readers often claim, erroneously, that the novel is unfinished. When I first read it, approximately a bazillion years ago, in a Penguin paperback edition – yellow color bar on the spine, Penguin's way of denoting "American literature," as opposed to red, green, or purple (English, Middle East and Asia, and "the Ancients," in order) – from the local library (long since plowed over to make way for an "urban center" of upscale markets and chain restaurants, I'm told), the back cover copy actually stated that the novel was Poe's great unfinished novel. It was more than a decade before I found out I'd read the ending wrong: it’s not an unfortunate cut off, but the most deliberate middle finger ever extended towards the reader in all American literature.

But I digress.

I bring up Verne and Lovecraft because this admittedly limited sample (and we could throw Melville in here too and the conclusion, which you have not yet read, will hold) shows that, in the game of being influenced by Poe's Narrative, the winner is the dude who goes the most afield from Poe's original work. Verne set out to write a work-specific sequel and his novel is rightly forgotten. "Mountains of Madness," on the other hand, requires no knowledge that it is basically a sequel to Poe's Narrative and is justly considered one of the key texts in Lovecraft's body of work.

Johnson gets the Pym Principle: You've got to betray the influence to make it work for you. With it's overly quirky cast, it's pulpy narrative drive, and it unembarrassed willingness to discuss it's own themes and make the subtext the text, Johnson's Pym doesn't resemble Poe, but rather Vonnegut. Pym's a burlesque horror/satire/adventure/pomo scramble that manages, somehow, to simultaneously never take itself to serious and never treat itself like a joke. The result is an examination of America's perennial obsession racial identity played as if it were a boy's adventure novel.

Well worth the price of admission.

Spiegel and Grau (if that means anything to ya') put up for this party. It's in hardback now and will set you back 24 Washgintons. You could wait for the trade paperback, but that's basically like announcing to the world, "Yeah, a vibrant literary culture of switched-on readers and authors that produce interesting work isn't worth ten bucks to me."

1 comment:

Sasquatchan said...

I'm glad book review/previews are making a comebackin your posts..