by Morgan on June 30, 2011
Sunday night, we held the book club meeting for Pym (which had been rescheduled due my being a big flu-y baby).
Pym is an indisputably insane book, a ludicrously funny satire of academia and literary criticism. Briefly: Chris Jaynes, the only black professor in a mostly white liberal arts college, is denied tenure. This is due, in no small part, to his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe’s notoriously racist/stupid only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. When Jaynes discovers, to his delight, a manuscript that suggests that Poe’s story of finding a hidden tropical utopia within Antarctica, populated by an unaffected tribe of black natives, may have been true, he decides he’s going to find it. (Commence parody of long-lost homeland narratives. Commence Gulliver’s Travels-level hilarity.)
Jaynes assembles a ridiculous and seriously unqualified all-black crew, including his obese, Little Debbie snack cake-addicted childhood friend, his ex-girlfriend and her new husband, a pair of gay adventure bloggers, and Jaynes’s own cousin, the civil rights activist turned deep-sea diver (along with his dog, White Folks), and head to Antarctica in what Garth the overeater refers to as, “Negroes on Ice.”
In a not-so-subtle inversion of Poe’s story, the crew end up being enslaved by hulking albino monsters, or “snow honkies,” who live in subterranean ice tunnels. Then they escape and find Thomas Karvel (Johnson’s sendup of Thomas Kinkade) living in a Willy Wonkaesque biodome constructed to look identical to one of his paintings, (which Jaynes describes as, “like the view up a Care Bear’s ass,”) listening to an endless loop of prerecorded conservative talk radio, waiting for End Times.
I promise it gets even weirder after that.
The group had a fun time dissecting the novel. An interesting note was made that Johnson was able to achieve a level of entertainment that can stand on its own. That is, one could choose not to read Pym as a satire, but simply as a fantasy, and it still works. It seemed that everyone appreciated the way Johnson deals with race: we aren’t the first people to compare this novel to The Chappelle Show, in the way that it plays on American racial identity with equal parts acerbity and tenderness, and in the way that it makes you moderately uncomfortable in a way that you’re comfortable with.
Pym was definitely a good choice for a book group. It was suggested that I choose a female author next time (since I’ve done two males now) so I’ll start thinking. Next group meets in August – let me know if you’d like to join.