A Novel Ahead of Time
The gatekeepers of American culture who think American literature is dying as their worlds hip hop to a start can find consolation in Mat Johnson’s Pym: A Novel (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010). The book extends the olive branch of hope. It is evidence of things not seen. If the gatekeepers have not been convinced to stop playing at being Melchizedek by Garry Will’s Why Priests? : A Failed Tradition (New York: Viking, 2013), Pym will teach them the errors of their ways.
Pym restores the centrality of Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), in American Studies. It confirms that white cannot possess “the perfect whiteness of snow” without a drop of black. “Whatever twentieth-century ‘whites’ think about ‘blacks,’ according to Joseph R. Urgo’s Novel Frames: Literature as Guide to Race, Sex, and History in American Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991), “they owe their existence ---politically and culturally, and in many cases, genetically --- to those same black drops”(19).
American gatekeepers, especially the neoconservative ones, thrive in the sugar ditch of binary thinking.
From time to time, however, a few of them recognize society has more than two dimensions. Literature does sometimes manage to make an effective wake-up call. Consider Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage. That novel appropriated segments of Herman Melville’s classic “Benito Cereno” to create a new, post-whatever African American narrative and to give “double consciousness” a proper burial. Mat Johnson goes a step further. He creates a smart American narrative that guarantees the kind of immortality evoked in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 81: When all the breathers of this world are dead/ You still shall live – such virtue hath my pen --/Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
By resurrecting and blackening Edgar Allan Poe, Mat Johnson precludes the death of American literature and the obliteration of “whiteness.” We now have 666 dimensions of consciousness.
Ethiopian hieroglyphics live.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 22, 2013