The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Pym by Mat Johnson

I had great fun with this novel, for a variety of reasons. For one, I was already a fan of Johnson’s work. Incognegro was one of the best graphic novels of 2008 and I still recommend it friends who are willing to read anything other than long underwear comics. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately tracking down his other writing, both in and out of print.

I’m also a fan of Poe, however, and of his spiritual and literary descendants in the Weird Tales generation, in particular H.P. Lovecraft. And I recognize the problem that the corpus of work left behind by these Fine White Gentleman represents to modern readers and authors. (Let’s just say that the acronym FWG allows you to replace “Gentlemen” with “Guys” and “Fine” with some other adjective that starts with F.) To put it bluntly, these FWG’s are virulently racist bastards; they are sometimes virulently racist bastards in the midst of their finest work. Black people in particular take the worst of their foaming-rabies rhetoric and imagery. So if you are a writer of African-American descent–how do you respond?

There are a lot of answers to this question: Pym is one of them. In this novel, Johnson has taken one of Poe’s most famous and influential works–The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a serialized novel which influenced both Jules Verne and Lovecraft to write works that were equally influential on succeeding generations–and he has eviscerated it with a posthumous collaboration. And please do not think for a moment that I choose the verb “eviscerate” lightly; in the opening pages of Chapter II, Mat Johnson spills old Edgar’s guts on the floor, with a devastating summary of the plot, themes and imagery of the original novel which rips away every shred of doubt that the book is not only a monumentally racist screed, but also pretty badly and sloppily written.

It’s a thoroughly punishing attack, and it is neither the first nor the last. Johnson is throwing brutal punches throughout this book, knocking out the FWG’s so fast that you’d think his name was Jack.

“Garth pulled out this print of a painting, all scrolled up, and dropped it in my lap. I unraveled it and saw a syrupy sweet landscape of the Catskills, the kind of vista painted on how-to shows in half and hour. The kind of painting Garth adored, done by that artist he idolized.

‘It’s called Stock of the Woods,’ he said. ‘It’s a Thomas Karvel Hudson Valley School Edition. A tribute to the painters they used to have here. I have an original signed print. That’s part of my nest egg, and you’re there laughing at it. Look at it. Really look at it, you need to. Don’t it make you all peaceful just looking into that world?

‘Looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.'”

This laconic summary of the White Man’s Contribution to World Art is not Johnson’s final word, of course. There are several white characters in this book, and most of them serve in one way or another to expand on this theme. This early glimpse of the view up a Care Bear’s ass will certainly not be our last; indeed, you might say that the second half of the novel represents an extended proctological expedition up the rainbow glitter rectum of the White Aesthetic, with Johnson in the boat beside you blasting away at the polyps on either shore.

If there is a downside to this novel, it’s the fact that it genuinely IS funny, more often than not. Humor is often unkind, and this book is no exception. The few white characters in the novel, for example, including a stand-in for Poe himself, are not spared the lash. It’s both deeply personal and wholly impersonal; none of these people are really human beings in any but the broadest sense of the word. What they are instead are caricatures of Whiteness in general, like the countless black characters in literature who are caricatures of Blackness in general. Their lines and actions serve to forward a general thesis and move the plot rather than to explore the humanity any real human being.

There is no aspect of Whiteness which is not open to ridicule in this book. White art, White literature, White power, White physicality, White cuisine, White marriage, inter-racial sex and love, the White ancestral climate–they all come under fire here. It’s a barrage, and it can’t even be said that the only people hurt when Whiteness is attacked are White. When any two peoples meet on hostile terms, the ones who are willing to enter the liminal zone and make a separate peace are always caught in the cross-fire, and soonest to be hurt.

In short, this book is what I call a “Turn-About Test”, a reversal of standard procedure which lets you really see how far off-balance the system has been. The method usually works quite well with gender, and produces hilarious results; Johnson here proves that it can also be done effectively with race. He hasn’t done anything for Whiteness in this book which hasn’t been done to Blackness in countless books. It’s a highly instructive read to see the dynamic reversed, to see Whiteness simultaneously made the epitome of the monstrous, the mad, the stupid, the weak, the ugly and the uncivilized. Quite frankly I’d recommend the book to anyone on that basis alone.

What puts the icing on the snack cake is that this is also a beautifully paced and well-written little novel. It bounces right along without any parts that drag, its images are clear and beautiful, it’s always entertaining, and most of the major characters have at least a moment or two of genuine charm or sympathy in the course of the book. What’s more, the novel is not so mean-spirited that you can’t the joke.

I’d give it the full five stars, but I can’t.

‘Cause, you know.

The man called me a snow monkey.

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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