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Social Satire At Its Best
The social satire within the pages of Mat Johnson's latest offering, Pym, is nothing short of brilliant and extremely hilarious -- I found it to be a seriously and literally "laugh out loud" funny novel! Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Pym's protagonist is a recently dismissed, professor Chris Jaynes, who is frustrated with his former employer's decision to deny him tenure for what he views as insubordination. His act of defiance is refusing to join the Diversity Committee and pursuing non-African American literary interest many of which explore theories of racist pathology in popular American literature. As the title implies, Jaynes's interest lies with Poe's only novel which contains stereotypical depictions of non-whites and a fantastic, seafaring journey.
If you are unfamiliar with Poe's work, worry not, because the author, through Jaynes, summarizes the story quite nicely, pointing out the inconsistencies, social relevance of key passages, and cleverly ties in Jaynes' driving passion to rediscover, Tsalal, the mythical island of blacks cited near the end of Poe's book. Once Jaynes is convinced that Poe's work is truly authentic (despite its many holes, flaws, and inaccuracies), the adventure begins with Jaynes's contacting his deep-sea diving, boat-owning cousin, Booker, as captain of a motley crew which consists of Jaynes's ex-girlfriend and her new husband (both attorneys), his unemployed best friend, and a gay thrill-seeking, documentary-making couple. Everyone has their own agenda regarding the re-discovery of Tsalal: Jayne's being anthropological/academic in nature, the couple's being social networking fame/reality show publicity, and Booker and the attorney's desires are rooted in profit-making (exploitative) purposes.
Sounds humdrum, right? Wrong! The strength of the book is its quirky characters, their absurd trek to discover an unknown land/people, and the endless uncanny situations where America's racial views, fears, stereotypes and archetypes are subtly (and sometimes overtly) reanimated on the frozen tundra. There are so many facets to this rich novel, for example, an ironic point that resurfaces repeatedly in the novel is that Jaynes is of mixed heritage. Using an antiquated term, he is a self-described "octoroon"; however, he identifies as African American, but can "pass" as white and this often puts a different spin on many of the zany, precarious situations he finds himself in.
It is highly recommended for those who enjoy satire or for anyone who wants to sample something different. No doubt, Pym is my first five-star read of 2011! I truly enjoyed every page and am looking forward to whatever Mat Johnson releases next.
This book was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
Reviewed by Phyllis