Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Nat Johnson's Pym - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads About Race

Last year there was no Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded. This award, usually given annually, recognizes the best writing published during the year that captures some central aspect of the American experience. Over the years, the Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to exceptional books that have become part of our shared experience - To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of this category - and they have been awarded to authors who should have had a Pulitzer for their earlier work and the current book is good and somewhat related to the American experience - Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea falls in this category. But the committee could not come to a consensus about either. The New York Times asked authors to nominate books, and Maud Newton nominated Nat Johnson's Pym as a modern look at race with a Vonnegut-like wry humor.

As a fan of the Pulitzer, Vonnegut, and a person who is curious about race, especially about the subjectivity of cross racial experiences, I bit. Initially I was quite disappointed. This book is NOT about the subjectivity of cross racial experience. It is marginally about subjectivity at all - except in a very broad, very romanticized sense of subjectivity - which is to say, to my mind, not a very accurate articulation of subjectivity, though one that can be compelling. On reflection, Vonnegut's rather arch and wry renditions of consciousness can be quite glib and romantic and therefore were quite appealing to my adolescent and idealistic self, but might be less satisfying were I to chew on them today. Like Vonnegut, Johnson takes on a big topic and approaches it with humor and more than a little irreverence.

The original Pym is Edgar Allen Poe's sole novel. Written in serial form to make a buck when Poe was dying of advanced alcoholism and out of money, it is the story of a trip to Antarctica in the company of an African American that includes a stop at an island with people who are blacker than black on the way to arriving on the shores of Antarctica to be greeted by white yeti like creatures in a weird, unclear ending. Nat Johnson retells this tale from a modern perspective - apparently something that others have done. In Johnson's tale, Chris Jaynes, an African American Poe scholar is denied tenure at his small, white liberal arts college, purchases the memoirs of Dirk Peters, Poe's African American sidekick on his Antarctic adventure, and Jaynes assembles a crew of African Americans with a variety of interests to sail to Antarctica. There they improbably discover the yeti-like creatures and the two hundred year old Pym, preserved by the Yetis' alcoholic beverage which Pym drinks in copious quantities. The African Americans briefly enslave and then are enslaved by the Yetis - or snow monkeys as they refer to them in a reverse stereotypical manner.

The plot of the book is preposterous, and the characters amusing but two dimensional - the central and striking images are of ice caves on the one hand - carved out of the glaciers, they are austere but beautiful spaces with thin ice roofs that let in the 24 hour sun of summer - and a bio sphere constructed by a painter named Karvel, who is clearly a representation of Thomas Kinkade - the kitschy painter who created imaginary cottages and landscapes that people many American's homes. The biodome becomes a haven of sorts two of the escaped slaves.

The biodome is not just a device, but something that exists, as in the link, in the world, as well as in movies . Dependent on massive quantities of petrochemicals to maintain its temperature, Johnson's Biodome's exhaust is melting the ice caves; and it is the home of Karvel and his wife, and their entire enterprise is to make the internal landscape reflect one of Karvel's paintings exactly. Jaynes's sidekick, a bloated Little Debbie loving African American, is a huge fan of Karvel/Kinkade. And, if I understand the intent, he symbolizes the African American community's investment in acculturation. The American dream that is painted across the ceiling and included in the palm trees and blue tinted water running through streams in a dome in Antarctica is a picture of the delusional quality of the desired goal. It is not real, organic or true in its own right, much less as a vision to be aspired to by a people that were enslaved in order to bring it to fruition (Marvel/Kinkade's wife serves the slave function in the dome, as do, briefly, the two escaped African Americans).

From Johnson's perspective, then, the process of acculturation - from eating Little Debbie's, to enslaving others, to being enslaved - perhaps at one's job - is a false dream. The real dream that he ends his version of Pym with is sailing, as the racist Pym dies in his boat, to an island peopled not by the blackest blacks of Poe's work, but by brown people, people who are the color of most people on the planet.

As I reflected on this work, I was reminded of the two Jesuit visions of God - as a God of Affection or one of Disaffection. The God of Affection creates a world that is filled with elements that are in tension with each other, and he loves the whole creation - and is pulling for us to work to make it a little less messy. The God of Disaffection creates a perfect world - a Kinkadian world - that is corrupted by evil forces that should be vanquished. The latter God supports banishing those who are corrupted/corrupting and bonding with those who, like us, are good.

From a more analytic perspective, the person worshipping a God of Affection is interested in the entire range of her or his reactions to the world - good, bad, and indifferent. The person worshipping the God of disaffection banishes from consciousness thoughts that are unacceptable; bad thoughts that they shouldn't have. Oedipal thoughts, for instance, can be viewed as dangerous, incestuous thoughts that should be banished at all costs, or they can be treated as thoughts - and approached with curiosity about why they are emerging at this moment and what it is that they might signify. I think it is easier to worship a God of Affection, to entertain forbidden thoughts, when the intensity of those thoughts, significant though it may be, has not been realized in actions that overwhelm the ability to get psychological distance from them. Slavery - and having enslaved others - makes it very hard for us to dispassionately entertain thoughts about slavery, just as having been an incest survivor or perpetrator makes it hard for us to dispassionately entertain thoughts about incest.

This book, Pym, is disappointing then, not because it is not entertaining but because it, like the movie The Graduate, points to the problems of the generations before, but both works end on the cusp of whatever new thing it is that would be created. But neither presents a new template, and, without a new template, I fear that the new will end up taking on the mantle of the old very quickly. We will slide back into the sado masochistic relational patterns and the idealistic romantic vision of a perfect world and be totally unaware that the byproducts of our visions are toxic to the world's organic inhabitants.

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