Here we are, friends: Volume II of Mat Johnson’s Pym. I got some valuable feedback from a few of you fine folks that last week’s post was a little aggressive discussion-wise, so I’m going to do my best this time around to do less analysis and more inquiry.
Hang onto your hats, readers. Shit’s about to get real.
While immersed in Volume I, I had been wondering about Johnson’s preoccupation with disaster. On his way to meet Captain Jaynes in Manhattan, Chris confesses, “I didn’t like going near Wall Street. More specifically, I didn’t like going near high-risk bombing targets, it just wasn’t my thing” (71), and a few pages later, “I’d reserved a hotel room in Queens for the night; it was cheaper and safer than Manhattan” (75). In Volume II, we begin to understand these earlier moments as set-up for the Armageddon that finally arrives:
“It was familiar trauma … But this time there wasn’t just one place identified in the chyron, one nation, one landmark in flames. This time there was Tokyo, and Paris, and Berlin. And then there was London, and New York, and L.A., and Sydney, and Seoul…” (97)
We don’t yet know much about the destruction up north, but one thing is clear: we’re at war.
Who/what are we at war with, both literally (plot) and figuratively (theme)? Who is the “we”? Is Johnson intentionally commenting on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the horror, the horror!)? If so, how? If not, where the heck did I get this crazy idea?
Love as Adventure … or something
I’ll admit it. Angela is a confusing character for me. Clearly, she’s important—otherwise, what’s she doing there?—but I’m not yet sure how. (I’m hoping we’ll see more of her in Volume III.) She represents a failure in Chris’s past, for sure, one which he feels he must correct in order to prove his own self-worth, and also something more.
“But the way Angela looked at me,” Chris says upon discovery of the Tekelians, “was the greatest treasure and maybe the whole point” (130).
What is the something more? “The whole point” of what? How is Angela’s character serving the story?
Fun with Footnotes
Johnson makes unusual use of footnotes throughout. When they’re not straddling the line between academia and entertainment—of Mahalia Mathis’s letter, Chris notes, “Although represented as three, there were in truth at least a dozen exclamation points at the end of the note’s final sentence. And each of those had a frowning face drawn carefully into its base dot, which I am both unable and unwilling to re-create here” (83)—they’re calling into question the very narrative they’re supplementing.
“The events that follow are fantastical and challenged the imaginations even of those of us who experienced them firsthand. I will therefore attempt to relay them to you in the most straightforward manner I can manage, taking on the same level of distance I did on that day, simply to avoid being completely overwhelmed.” (129)
What an interesting inclusion. Why does Johnson feel the need to provide this disclaimer? What is it accomplishing? How does it affect our reading of the events to follow?
In your comments, feel free to respond to the questions I’ve posed above, or raise new talking points and questions for us to toss around.
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Last but certainly not least, if you’re not yet a book club member and would like to be, it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon. Simply use the comments section below to express interest, and either dive into Pym now or join us for next month’s pick (TBD).
Have at it, folks.
WriteByNight owner Justine Tal Goldberg is an award-winning writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction. Her short stories have appeared in Anomalous Press, Whiskey Island, Fringe Magazine, and other publications. Her journalistic work has appeared in Publishing Perspectives, Austin Monthly and the Texas Observer, among others. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College.