About PYM

PYM: A Novel by Mat Johnson (2011)

A short video from the RIC Open Books - Open Minds program on this year's common book selection, "PYM"

Inspired by the mysterious ending of Edgar Allan Poe's strange and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, this novel follows Christopher Jaynes, professor of African American Literature, who discovers a crudely crafted manuscript reportedly written by a real survivor of the Poe adventure -- half breed Indian/dark-skinned freedman, Dirk Peters. Ship's cook on Poe's fictional Antarctic voyage that erupted in mutiny, Dirk Peters not only led the uprising, but survived starvation, cannibalism, Antarctic ice and albino giants. Attaining Tsalal, a tropical isle of horrific blackness according to Poe's description, Peters offers a very different account than Pym.

Our protagonist, Christopher Jaynes, is dismissed from his post as professor of African American Literature for refusing to join the college Diversity Committee, and devoting too much time to the study of Whiteness, rather than Blackness, so he organizes an Antarctic journey to pursue his research. Jaynes manages to collect a posse of black friends to help him pursue Peters' tale of ice caves, white Antarctic giants, and the mythical land of Tsalal. What ensues is an amazing tale of ice, slavery, adventure, popular art, Armageddon, rat poison, and Little Debbie snack cakes. Perhaps we could sum it up as an absurdist science fiction sequel to Poe's Pym. No doubt it is a picaresque novel in its own right, but perhaps also a parody of fantasy meta-fiction? Or simply a black comedy about whiteness? Whatever we call it, it is a very funny book.

About the Author

"Born to an Irish-American father and an African American mother and raised in the Philadelphia area, Mat Johnson writes primarily about the lives of African Americans, using fiction, nonfiction and graphic novels as mediums. He is the author of the novels PYM (2011), Hunting in Harlem (2003), and Drop (2000); the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot; and the graphic novels Incognegro (2008), Dark Rain (2010), and Right State (2012).

Until 2000, Johnson was a regular columnist for New York's Time Out magazine. His column, entitled "Utter Matness," dealt with a wide breadth of issues--some funny, some serious, but all thought-provoking. Johnson also wrote a blog from 2006-2007 entitled "Niggerati Manor," which discussed African American literature and culture.

In 2007, Johnson was named the first USA James Baldwin Fellow by the United States Artists Foundation, a public charity that supports and promotes the work of American artists. He was awarded the 2011 John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and prestigious Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. He is also a recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Mat Johnson is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program."


"Chris Jaynes, professor of African American studies … devises a mission to find the lost, black-inhabited island near Antarctica described in Poe's narrative, setting off with an all-black crew that includes his seafaring cousin; his obese friend Garth; his ex-fiancee, Angela, and her husband, Nathaniel; and two flamboyant mechanics. They discover something else described in Poe's narrative … giant, yeti-like, albino humanoids living in large colonies below the ice in Antarctica. This extension of Poe's adventure is a romp that surprises on every page. Funny, insightful, racially important, Pym is a death-defying adventure and a probing examination of notions of race, even at the farthest ends of the earth."

– Julie Hunt, Booklist

"Loony, disrespectful, and sharp, Johnson's Pym is a welcome riff on the surrealistic shudder-fest that is Poe's original…I'll stop there, but Johnson's inventiveness never does."

– NPR's "Fresh Air"

"PYM reframes far more than Poe – it reframes everything American, from the whiteness of Ahab's whale to Detroit bus drivers; from DNA testing to tenure review; from the Gatsbyesque dream of romantic love to the dream of Utopia; from our fear of life to our love of death. No one today writes inside the brilliant black mind better."

– Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone and Rebel Yell

"Social criticism rubs shoulders with cutting satire in this high-concept adventure… [PYM] is caustically hilarious as it offers a memorable take on America's 'racial pathology' and 'the whole ugly story of our world.'"

Publishers Weekly, starred review

"The topic of slavery repeatedly makes subversive and sometimes hilarious appearances. Booker's dog, for example, is named "White Folks." Says Jaynes: "My cousin loved calling his name in anger." Johnson's Pym is unpredictable and wide open to interpretation. Is Jaynes's journey about reconciling his mixed heritage in a world where even "one drop" of African blood makes you a "Negro"? Perhaps. In a story as entertaining and intriguing as Pym, it hardly seems to matter."


"Relentlessly entertaining ... It's no easy task to balance social satire against life-threatening adventure, the allegory against the gory, but Johnson's hand is steady and his ability to play against Poe's text masterly. The book is polyphonous and incisive, an uproarious and hard-driving journey."

New York Times Book Review

"Riotous ... Jaynes never learns much about the white pathology and mindset, but Mr. Johnson knows plenty about the character types he skewers."

Wall Street Journal

"Blisteringly funny ... a full-fledged and fiendishly inventive inversion of Poe's [Pym], a series of bizarre encounters I can't bring myself to spoil, each one more deliciously pointed than the last."

– Laura Miller, Salon

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Page last updated: Sep. 6, 2013