The Short Version: Chris Jaynes, recently canned professor of African-American Literature at a “good not great” liberal arts college, has made the discovery of a lifetime – Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is true. Throwing together a cockamamie all-black team, he heads down to the South Pole to prove his findings and ends up discovering that just because there was truth to the story doesn’t mean it was safe to go explore it.
The Review: I’ve been a fan of Poe since I was a kid. I took a class on his work and impact my freshman year of college (along with Matt Cullinan, Ian Stoker-Long, and Patricia Noonan – for those keeping score) and we had to read The Narrative… as one of the texts. It’s such a strange book – Poe was clearly not cut out for long-form writing, despite his genius with the English language. I remember being confused, frustrated, and yet strangely pulled-in by the inexplicable ending, just as Jaynes is. What I didn’t realize about Poe at the time (although, in retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t see it quite clearly) was that he was a fiery racist. It’s all over his writings, when he talks about African-Americans. I’m less convinced that the white creatures at the Pole are some highest form of goodness for Poe – but the Tsalalians were certainly blackness-as-evil. Interesting to see one of the most revered authors in the language taken down a few pegs…
Johnson’s book is not the first ‘sequel’ to The Narrative… and I can’t claim to’ve read the others. Mostly because they all sound pretty terrible. (I don’t count Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” as a true sequel, ps) And, unfortunately, as with most sequels… Pym doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor. The ‘blackness’ angle to the novel was an interesting one – it wasn’t just the Victor LaValle quote on the back that made me think of Big Machine – but it gets a little trying as the action speeds up. At first, Chris’ voice and the supporting characters all had reasons to discuss their blackness and for it to be an issue in the novel… but once you’re on the run from massive yeti-like monsters, is that really the time to bring it up?
The biggest weakness in the novel is actually the ‘reveal’ of the monsters. The best thing, perhaps, about Poe’s novel is that you are left wondering, forever, what those things were that Pym saw looming out of the mists. Once you discover that they’re basically yetis… well… it becomes mundane rather quickly. I think Johnson knew this and that’s why the book continues to get even more fantastical – ridiculously so – as it goes on. The whole thing with the painter and his BioDome? It pulled so out of the book with the force of slamming on the brakes at a stoplight. It was so strange and seemed, tonally, to belong in a completely different book. Same with the apparent near-future where the book was set, complete with multiple terror attacks and (apparently) the apocalypse happening across the globe while the action occurs in the solitude of the Antarctic wastelands. The spirit of Poe that infused the beginning of this book never comes back, sadly. Plus, the realism of Chris’ character at the beginning is flattened into predictable “hero” features by the two-thirds mark.
I applaud Johnson for harking back to the source material whenever he could – the structure of the novel similarly follows that of the Poe novel, right down to the dog randomly appearing and being justified on the grounds of “really loving that dog”. The end, also similarly, breaks down into journal entries… a dead man on the ship… and strange inhabitants looming ahead of the small boat. But the sort of story Poe wrote then doesn’t play nowadays, especially when the author tries to ram too many things into a relatively short novel. I did love the footnotes, though. Always love footnotes.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Kudos for taking on The Narrative… and all of its mystery – but marks against for not having realized that the mystery is why The Narrative… is what it is. Johnson seems, at times, too pleased with his own wit and commentary, never realizing that he’s painting with far too broad of a brush. The voice he creates for Chris Jaynes is witty and entertaining as hell, but the story lets him down. The lesson here, of course, is that you’ll rarely find the sequel that lives up to the original – and Pym definitely doesn’t meet the task.