Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe Reimagined

I wouldn't dream of calling contemporary fiction boring -- especially since there are plenty of gems (read: Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad or Díaz's Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). But I will say that Mat Johnson's Pym, a hilarious and clever reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe's only (and unfinished) novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will make most novelistic options seem comparatively dull.

From the drama of chapter one in which Chris Jaynes, the only black male professor at a small liberal arts college, is denied tenure for refusing to sit on the diversity committee, to said professor's seafaring adventure through the South Seas, to his discovery of the only-ever uncolonized species—primitive natives so dark that even their teeth are black, Pym offers no shortage of entertainment and surprise.

I saw Mat give a reading from this novel a few weeks ago at SoHo's McNally-Jackson, where he discussed the challenges that dragged the writing of Pym on for a decade. Among them: How could he imbed literary criticism in a novel without sacrificing the story's enjoyability? His solution, in part, seems to be through humor and narrative drama. In fact, one of the successes of Pym is that it can be understood and appreciated on multiple levels—even for those of us who've never read Poe's Pym.

Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, says that “no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe.” Mat Johnson ensures that this piece of Poe's reputation will be as well canonized as his beguiling "Raven."

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