Meta, Meta and More Meta
“Turns out though that my thorough and exhaustive scholarship into the slave narratives of the African Diaspora in no way prepared me to actually become a fucking slave” (160), says our scholarly narrator Chris.
Aside from being a great standout line—I’m a fan of the cadence—it calls our attention to two important elements at play throughout the book: 1.) the meta-narrative, the way that Chris’s account of his Antarctic experiences mimics the slave narratives with which he is so familiar, and 2.) the limitations of scholarship, and by extension literature, to fully capture actual lived experience.
What statement, if any, do you think Johnson is making about the limitations of scholarship and/or literature? In this context, what role does Chris’s modern-day slave narrative play?
All the World is a Stage
Captain Jaynes is full of surprises in Volume III, from his apparent comfort with slavery to his … ahem … relationship with the Tekelian Hunka and refusal to escape. To wit:
“He seemed more at peace in [his work] than I had seen him in any of his Creole desk duties … There was relief in his voice. As if the man’s worst fears in life had been realized and justified all in the same moment” (173).
“‘No point in running anymore, can’t you see that. We stay, and we struggle. Because the struggle is who we are’” (210), Jaynes tells Chris.
How are we to make sense of Captain Jaynes’s behavior knowing what we do about his strong feelings regarding black vs. white and what he believes to be the prescribed roles of each? Do his actions represent a reversal of these beliefs or are they a natural extension of them?
The Perils of Whiteness
Stranded in the Antarctic tundra, preparing to die and/or be cannibalized by Pym, Chris has an epiphany:
“That is how they stay so white: by refusing to accept blemish or history. Whiteness isn’t about being something, it is about being no thing, nothing, an erasure. Covering over the truth with layers of blank reality just as the snowstorm was now covering our tent, whipping away all traces of our existence from the pristine landscape” (225).
Wow. What a passage.
Who/what is the “they”? It’s more than just the Tekelians or Caucasians, isn’t it? How does this revelation relate to Thomas Karvel’s paintings and the overwhelming feeling of whiteness therein? Perhaps more importantly, what does it say about Chris’s development both as a person and a scholar?
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 join us for next month’s pick: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides led by our very own Jenna Cooper.
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.