From the biting opening line of Pym, Incognegro writer Mat Johnson promises and delivers a novel both hilarious and academic, a satire in the best possible sense. The novel opens with the main character, English professor Chris Jaynes having just been denied tenure at a “historically white” liberal-arts college in New York. He believes it’s because he, the campus’ token black professor, refused to serve on the diversity committee and preferred to give classes on Edgar Allen Poe rather than African-American literature.
The focus of Jaynes’ research is The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket, Poe’s only novel, an inaccessible, racially charged work that Jaynes believes holds the key to America’s historical conception of “Whiteness.” This requires some literary analysis of the text, but it’s short, engaging, and necessary for understanding Pym as a response to the Poe work. Pym functions well as a 19th-century style adventure, with Jaynes starting a quest to find the locations mentioned in The Narrative when he uncovers proof that it isn’t a work of fiction. He gathers a crew to seek out the island of Tsalal near Antarctica, where Arthur Gordon Pym described a mythical race of entirely black humans, untouched by European colonialism.
As interesting as the adventure is, however, it isn’t the novel’s main draw. Pym is wickedly, deliriously, acerbically funny. Jaynes confronts his college’s president, mentally preparing by getting “gangsta” instead of “gangster” because “it expresses a willful unlawfulness even upon its own linguistic representation.” He meets a new faculty member who is also black, but their drunken bonding turns into a fistfight when Jaynes realizes the new guy is his staff replacement. A group of African-Americans who are utterly convinced they have Native American heritage get their genetic test results as Jaynes watches and comments on internalized racism. The comedy pokes fun, but it’s done with love, akin to the best moments of The Boondocks or The Chappelle Show.
When the absurd setpieces end and the adventure begins, Pym’s momentum is maintained by a strong batch of characters. Chris Jaynes is a well-realized narrator, with the jaded academic’s self-awareness and self-hatred. His easy camaraderie with his childhood best friend Garth could make for an excellent buddy comedy, while his cousin Booker Jaynes, a former civil-rights activist turned ocean salvage captain, is a revelation. Even when the situation turns deadly serious for the characters, Johnson’s gifts of characterization and satire keep the story moving. In theory, a novel about literary history and the American construction of racial identity sounds ponderous; in practice, Pym is a joy to read, intelligent and amusing in perfectly balanced measure.