• Pym, Volume #2

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 13 comments

    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.

    Apocalypse Now

    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.

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

    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.

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    Leah Kaminsky

    “Who/what are we at war with, both literally (plot) and figuratively (theme)? Who is the “we”?” This is an interesting question, and I love your earlier thoughts on disaster. At the time of reading, I took this fear of diaster to be a sad comment on our current national identity. The more connected the world becomes, the easier tragedy is to inflict, and there’s a feeling that The Big One is an inevitability. We carry this weight with us; it’s who we are. In that way, I focused on Chris’ obsession with disaster as an apt characterization, both of modern… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    “But to be fair, many of the side characters feel this way [like prototypes], and that may be part of Johnson’s point.” Interesting. Like who? Prototypes of what? “Chris tries to interpret the world in the same way he interprets his books…and often missteps. What does that say about his scholarship?” Love this point. I do question though whether we’re invited to doubt his intellectual prowess. His limited scope, sure, but his competence? I dunno. I’m not yet convinced. The footnotes eviscerate, alright. All that undercutting, it must be a commentary on scholarship … as is this entire book. This… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    I guess by prototypes I mean more stock characters. You’ve got the unattainable, perfect (to the character) girl. You’ve got her jerk, rich, cocky husband. I suppose the rest aren’t all that prototypical, just not completely fleshed out for me. This isn’t a criticism of the book. I think each character represents someone we can recognize from our own society, and provides perfect fodder for the Chris’ intentional and unintentional satire. What do you think? As for Chris’ intellectual prowess, I wonder if it’s more of a critique of the intellectual mind, which likes to over-apply frameworks successful in scholarly… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I think I don’t really know what I think. On the one hand, I appreciate your point about satire working well with stereotypes. On the other, all characters in all literature are stock because they’re created to live and breathe just like real people and real people are types, too. With unique traits, of course, but commonalities at core. Stereotypes come from somewhere. I guess I’m resisting the prototype analysis because Garth, in particular, feels very flesh-and-blood to me. For that reason, I may be feeling protective. Funnily enough (and this perhaps speaks to the question of whether Chris is… Read more »

    Leah Kaminsky

    Yes, you’re right about all literature drawing from stereotypes. I was thinking of this as I was formulating my last response. But what makes those stereotypes new, interesting, and meaningful is an author’s unique spin on them, which can come in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it’s enough to give a stereotyped character an unexpected hobby; sometimes, it needs to go deeper. I agree that Garth is very flesh and blood, and when I think about it, the only characters that really bother me are Angela and her husband, and mostly the former. This comes from a larger frustration with… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I keep hoping Angela will become real but, since you’ve read to the end of the book, I trust that she doesn’t. This = sad.

    Re: “But does that say something about Johnson or about Chris, who, as discussed, tends to miss what’s right in front of him? Or about me projecting my own crap?” Let’s say it’s a little bit of both, hmmm?

    Leah Kaminsky

    “I keep hoping Angela will become real but, since you’ve read to the end of the book, I trust that she doesn’t.”

    Not necessarily. I tend not to give characters I dislike a second chance. :)


    I love Garth and Captain Jaynes–they’re the two characters I “saw” most clearly during my read. Chris is very self-absorbed and approaches much of life through a scholarly light (nothing wrong in and of itself, but it makes Chris a difficult character to get emotionally attached to). I think Garth is a foil for Chris; Garth appreciates art on an aesthetic level (i.e. Karvel paintings), and his likes and dislikes aren’t determined by critical analysis. Angela…I didn’t understand why Chris–wait a sec, I do understand why Chris was enamored with her. Chris constantly turns things in his life into narratives… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Oh, totally on the Gatsby front. I’m also picking up on a ton of literary references–not surprising, considering Chris’s scholarly background. I had, for example, been picking up on a Lovecraft-ian vibe and was happily validated when I came across the direct reference to Lovecraft in Volume III. I already mentioned the “Heart of Darkness” parallel. What other literary allusions are you seeing?

    Leah Kaminsky

    I’m not sure what other literary allusions are there, but I do wonder what they say as a whole about literature and scholarship. As Chris’ books meet their fated end, he becomes what’s inside them.

    Whoa. Too deep?

    Laura Roberts

    Okay, having now read on into Volume 3, this book is definitely full of surprises. I like that the cynical Captain Jaynes says basically “Just give these white people a chance and they’ll take whatever they can get,” because despite being labelled the paranoid in the group, he is remarkably tuned in to the reality of the situation. And he is also unusually resigned to his fate, once they’ve all been enslaved. I really hope that Garth will save the day, with or without a boatload of Little Debbie snack cakes, to redeem his bailing on the rest of them.… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Agreed, Captain Jaynes’s behavior is really striking. More on this in our Volume III discussion to be posted first thing tomorrow. Thanks for being so prescient!

    Without having read Poe’s “Pym,” it’s hard to say how closely Johnson’s “Pym” follows, but I do wonder if that’s even the point anymore. When Chris first started out on this adventure, the issue of loyalty to the original text was prominent but now, it feels like there’s so much more at stake. I am curious about whether they’ll get to Tsalal, though, the promised land.

    […] 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 spirit moves […]

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