• Pym, Volume #1

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 17 comments

    For the inaugural month of WBN’s online book club, we’re reading Mat Johnson’s Pym. If you’re a book club member, you already know that. 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).

    Here’s a quick reminder of January’s reading schedule:

    Jan. 1-7: Pym Volume I
    Jan. 8-14: Pym Volume II
    Jan. 15-21: Pym Volume III
    Jan. 22-28: Pym Volume IV

    A discussion of each volume penned by yours truly will appear right here on WBN’s blog within days of that volume’s completion. Please be sure to subscribe to WBN’s blog via email (in the sidebar to the right) or RSS so that you’re alerted to posts when they publish.

    As riveting as these logistics are, what do you say we get down to business? Volume I, here we come.

    Academia as Slavery

    Academia plays a central role here—in initial setting, yes, but also in concept and character. The institution is presented as a corrupt, languishing system which favors politics over passion, affect over effect. As Chris explains to Mosaic Johnson when he expresses interest in the school’s Diversity Committee:

    “The Diversity Committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff. It allows the faculty and administration to point to it and go, ‘ Everything’s going to be okay, we have formed a committee.’ People find that very relaxing. It’s sort of like, if you had a fire, and instead of putting it out, you formed a fire committee.” (18)

    In this way, is Johnson (the author, not the character) likening academia to slavery?

    In both institutions, a group of people are made utterly ineffective. Their voices are silenced. Their roles, preordained. Needless to say, the stakes are different. What’s professional misery when compared to existential misery? Still, given Chris’s interest in slave narratives; the book’s exploration of racial dynamics largely through Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; and Chris’s observation of the professor who begged for his job back and got it, “It is more valuable to a master to have a morally broken slave than to have a confident one” (12), the parallel is difficult to ignore.

    Literature as Fetish

    “…we got to my house and saw all my books sitting there, on the front porch. Not in boxes, just stacked there. Hundreds of them. My books, my treasure. Sitting in the rain, bloated with a week’s worth of water and dirt and mold. Pages bursting open like they were screaming … Tens of thousands of dollars, years of collecting. Destroyed. Irreplaceable. Gifts, inscriptions, ruined. I picked one up, threw it down, started screaming. Jumping.” (15-16, emphasis mine)

    This is one of my favorite passages in the book thus far. Chris’s reaction to the decimation of his books is on par with grief for a loved one lost. He, in essence, falls to his knees and bellows “Why?” His description of the carnage is anthropomorphic to the point of discomfort (see emphasis above). It’s a massacre. The university—and academia (ahem, ahem)—has murdered his books and, in so doing, murdered a part of him.

    So here’s the question: Which part of Chris has died, and are we meant to mourn that loss or rejoice in his newfound freedom?

    After all, the destruction of his books makes him hungry for a new acquisition, The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters, which sends him on an adventure he wouldn’t have otherwise had. Up to this moment, he’s worshipped books as the vehicle of his intellectual introversion—“My office was a narrow A-framed cathedral with a matching window. A shrine to the books that lined the walls and my own solitude” (9)—and has now lost his faith, at least as it was in its previous form. His new faith is literary, for sure, but freer, more expansive, and perhaps healthier (i.e. un-fetishized). His pursuit of Dirk Peters and Poe’s Pym requires an exploration of the world, rather than a shrinking from it. We learn that “The Jaynes family was stricken with overactive intellectualism” (70), so has Chris been cured of his disease? Has he succeeded in shedding his academic chains?

    Emotional Truth

    A final thought to segue into Volume II: Chris deems Poe’s Pym “a book that at points makes no sense, gets wrong both history and science, and yet stumbles into an emotional truth greater than both” (22). Will Johnson’s Pym take the same form, or will he seek to revise Poe’s authorial missteps in service of a more technically successful piece of literature? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.

    Pym is so incredibly rich, I wish I could address everything. Of course, I can’t, but you can. 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.

    And don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” box below to stay engaged with the conversation. On to Volume II!


    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.

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    Leah Kaminsky

    Wow, so many great questions here, and such thought-provoking discussion. I agree with everything you wrote, and am having trouble responding in a way that isn’t just stating the obvious or repeating what you’ve said. I’ve also finished the book (which I’ll try not to do next time), so my response to some of these larger questions revolves around issues I’d love to discuss deeply, but can’t do so without giving anything away. This is particularly true for your questions around emotional truth, which I really struggled with in the end. I’d love to circle back to this in the… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Thanks for the feedback on the post, Leah. Next time around, I’ll do my best to tone down my discussion so there’s more room for commentary. Let’s circle back to emotional truth, for sure. “But I think we’re all always shackled in some way … Some handcuffs are just nicer than others.” Well said! We might do well to pick up this conversation in Volume II because I have this sense that when Chris arrives in Antarctica, he’s kind of not shackled–not even by reality–and I wonder if this unshackling will continue until … what? I dunno. If what you… Read more »

    So I just finished Volume II and, considering the fact that Chris and his crew have been sold into slavery, now think it’s funny that I was all, “I wonder if this unshackling will continue.” Funny and wrong. This book is crazy! I’m loving it.

    (Yes, I’m replying to my own comment. Whatever.)

    Leah Kaminsky

    Yeah, this is part of the reason why I was having trouble responding. :)

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I totally get it.

    I’m usually pretty good at predicting a plot’s potential twists and turns. Not so in this case. A surprise at every turn. Well done, Mat Johnson. Well done.

    Leah Kaminsky

    Well, to be fair to yourself, I think your reaction parallels Chris’. It felt to him like he was finding this new path towards freedom, which is part of what makes me wonder, do any such paths exist in a pure form? Your empathy let you skip down those paths with him. And I’m sure it was a fun ride while it lasted!


    I found that Johnson makes a point of addressing “identity” consistently throughout the novel–so much so that I think it’s the central theme. (I too couldn’t bring myself to stop reading; I already finished the book.) In Volume 1, Chris has part of his identity–the academic aspect–taken away from him when he doesn’t make tenure and his personal collection of rare books is demolished. So, part of Chris’s identity has “died,” but I think we’re meant to see it as a good thing, initially. He no longer has to work in a sphere where he’s expected to fill a racist… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Huh. I really hadn’t thought about Chris latching onto Peters’s identity, but now that you mention it, I totally see it. I wonder, too, if there’s a sort of identity tug-of-war at play for Chris: Does he identify with Peters or Pym, the slave or the master, black or white?

    And/or he could be identifying with Poe as author, although maybe the more appropriate parallel is Poe : Mat Johnson.

    […] 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 […]

    Laura Roberts

    As a book lover, I was horrified by the image of all those books sitting out in the rain. I remember the first time I entered a professor’s office, to be literally surrounded by books on every available surface, and thinking “This is the greatest!” You’d think a university would have a little more respect for books, but then again, some janitor probably moved the books, as Chris suggests, and would this guy give a damn about books, or would he be just another slave obeying his master? I think it’s funny that there’s even a discussion about whether the… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Re: “In real life, it seems like once you’re on the track, you’re going to get it, unless you do something really egregious.” Wow, I have such a different feeling about this. The brutality of academia–it’s volatile politics and almost assured disappointments–is the main reason I decided not to become a professor. You can work your ass off for years only to be told to hit the road for one unsupportable reason or another. In this case, the reason is behavior surrounding race identity, but if it hadn’t been that for Chris, I feel like it would have been something… Read more »


    I guess it’s always different for outsiders looking in, but I would wager most people in America view academia as “cushy” and certainly not “brutal,” though there may be different reasons for that. Many people seem to think that reading and writing is easy, that we can all do it, so tenure is therefore easily obtainable; I would disagree, but it certainly does seem that once you are allowed on the tenure track at all, it is easier to obtain than screw up, since most people these days aren’t even offered that lick of the brass ring (most of my… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    That is an interesting question, for sure. I wonder if there’s any application of this issue to Garth’s obsession with Thomas Karvel. He’s a fictitious character as far as I can tell and, at least as far as I’ve read, he hasn’t yet appeared–if he’ll appear at all. Johnson has definitely touched upon the issue with Chris’s distain for Garth’s interest in the painter, a disdain which seems to arise from his belief that the paintings represent whiteness. Let’s pick up this discussion in Volumes III and IV. I think we’re onto something here!


    Karvel is based on Thomas Kincaid, the self-coined “Painter of Light.” Check out his bio on Wikipedia…it’ll make Garth’s obsession seem quirkier.


    Oh yeah! Kinkade does those terrible oil paintings with even worse ads, usually found in old-lady and/or craft magazines. He does a lot of what I guess I’d term pop art, in an impressionistic style. He’s got a Gone With The Wind painting on his website: http://www.thomaskinkade.com

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Oh, how funny. Thanks for making that connection, Jenna. This explains a lot.

    […] you’re just now joining us, don’t forget to check out our discussions of Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III. Note: Our Volume III post is feeling seriously neglected, so if the […]

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