Pym is about a black man's search for the root of racism as demonstrated by his obsession with Edgar Allen Poe. Pym by Mat Johnson tells the story of a black professor of African American literature named Chris Jaynes who, in the wake of discovering a mysterious manuscript, embarks on a journey to Antarctica to prove that an unfinished novel by Edgar Allen Poe (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) was not fantasy at all, but a work of non-fiction.
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The story begins at what is described as a middle of the line east coast college, where Jaynes has been denied tenure after years of hard work. This is due to not only to lack of student interest in his African American literature courses, but the manner in which he teaches them. Jaynes is interested in studying the underlying racism in classic American works, as opposed to teaching novels written exclusively by African American authors; he refuses to join the college Diversity Committee, and, after a fruitless visit with the provost and adjudicated settlement, is ordered to empty his office.
Jaynes' life looks to be on the decline until his book dealer—the main character has a pointed in interest in rare books—informs him that he's stumbled upon a slave journal that might pique his curiosity. The journal, purportedly authored by a black deckhand named Dirk Peters, ends up sharing the same name of Arthur Gordon Pym's companion in the novel in question. This leads Jaynes to believe that there may be more truth in Pym's tale than he'd suspected, so he uses his lawsuit settlement from the college to hire an all-black crew to take to retrace the steps of Pym's journey to Antarctica.
Jaynes, being of mixed Caucasian and African ancestry, refers to himself as an octoroon. Even if he identifies more culturally as black, he looks white enough to not be identified as such. Dirk Peters, the author of the slave journal, explains a similar experience with his identity, being that even as he tried to aid Edgar Allen Poe in the telling of his story, was dismissed due to his social standing as a black. Jaynes discovers that Dirk Peter's journal contains the actual tale that Poe attempted—and failed to— transcribe, revealing the possibility that close to the South Pole resided an island populated by a mythical race of black humans untouched by European colonialism.
When Jaynes' sortie retraces the journey of Arthur Gordon Pym, they find themselves in Antarctica. There, confirming Peter's story, they stumble upon a race of gigantic, white, yeti-like creatures thus forth referred to as ‘ice honkeys.' They populate an underground lair beneath the ice. The story then veers towards the miraculous in the book's second half, in which Jaynes actually discovers that Arthur Gordon Pym himself is still alive. He also discovers that he's a fuming racist, however, and believes that Jaynes—who he takes for white—has come to Antarctica to trade his black crew away as slaves.
The final pages are fraught with peril; the yeti creatures attempt to take the Jaynes' crew as slaves, condemning them to instant servitude. With little more than Little Debbie Snack Cakes, rat poison, and a will to survive, Jaynes and his crew attempt to fight back against their captors. The book's ending, like that of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, is enigmatic and unfinished, drawing a parallel that is both racial and philosophical, between this modern story and the one written years ago.
Best part of story, including ending:
I love the tone and humor of this story. It's told from a first person point of view, and explores issues of race without being heavy handed.
Best scene in story:
I love the opening scene, actually, when Jaynes is attempting to fight to hold onto his job. It demonstrates the current state of academia, and is intelligent overall.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that his surliness actually comes in handy in order to make him undertake outlandish adventures.