Mat Johnson successfully renders in just the first twenty pages of his third novel Pym many of the fractures and splinters of academic life. The novel begins with an unceremonious denial of Chris Jaynes’s tenure for refusing to properly embody the representative negro. The insult is compounded when his prized collection of books is ruined because the college carelessly dumps them on his porch in an effort to hasten his removal from the campus. From here, Johnson creates a fantastic tale of a sinister Antarctic sugar barter that results in a new slave trade outside the view of a chaotic, disinterested, and possibly annihilated twenty-first century global economy. It’s Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark on steroids. Morrison’s exploration of literary whiteness focuses on the Africanist presence lurking in the shadows of canonical texts. Similarly Chris Jaynes confesses:
I like Poe, I like Melville, I like Hemingway, but what I like most about the great literature created by the Americans of European descent is the Africanist presence within it. I like looking for myself in the whitest of pages. I like finding evidence of myself there, after being told my foot-prints did not exist on that sand. I think the work of the great white writers is important, but I think it’s most important when it’s negotiating me and my people, because I am as arrogant and selfish a reader as any other.
Jaynes is fascinated by canonical authors. And one canonical author (if not his canonical texts) is at the center of Johnson’s Pym. Jaynes sees the possibility of a revitalized career at the end of an ocean journey retracing that of his historical antecedents, Dirk Peters and Arthur Gordon Pym, into the extremely deep south. In Pym, Johnson’s blade-sharpened wit situates his protagonist (and perhaps the author himself) within a polar-white world where freedom for black people is Tsalal—a distant, even more fanciful island. As a result African Americans inside the novel (and perhaps those outside the novel) are left scrambling for footing in an ice-bound world. In the process, Johnson offers us supreme insight. For instance, consider the narrator’s comment on the character who most effectively slides into a new role as a translator:
Speak no ill of the successful black male sellout, for he has achieved the goal of the community that has produced him: he has “made it,” used his skills to attain the status that would be denied him, earned entry at the door of the big house of prosperity. His only flaw is that he agreed to leave that community, its hopes, customs, aspirations, on the porch behind him. It is a matter of expedience as much as morality.
Sure, the critique is tinged with bitterness Jaynes harbors for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual service being performed. It nevertheless slices flesh from the bone with the precision of its truth. The undeniable truth for African Americans is that often “success” must be framed in the language of the southern plantation as the “big house” and as “selling out.” For a people who were literally bought and sold, the ability to sell oneself is already a measure of achievement. The flaws inherent in this plan are inherent in the system. Given the fact that the black community has neither the ability nor desire to buy what he is selling in a capitalist economy the approach becomes a question of “fair exchange.” Throughout Pym Johnson’s sensitive reading of cultural dynamics that extend from the seventeenth century slave economy to the global economics of the twenty first century is brilliantly handled. Yet, even as the novel offers insight, and leaves you literally laughing aloud, it offers no release. After all that is what the slave was seeking in running for freedom—release. Instead, after the trek into the frozen tundra, Johnson leaves his reader playing in the dark—still chasing shadows. And if Mat Johnson, following the lead in some respects of Edgar Allen Poe as his literary forebear, represents for us a detective fiction, the thing for which he is searching—the enigma of blackness and its free black space—remains at large.
Free Black Space