Bowdoin Reads

Professor Chakkalakal is reading...

by Mat Johnson

Published last year, Pym by Mat Johnson was recommended to me by a colleague who, like me, teaches African American literature. The novel, however, is adamantly not a work of African American literature though it is all about African American literature. The story revolves around the life of Christopher Jaynes who has recently been denied tenure at Bard College because rather than teach African American literature, as he was hired to do, he becomes obsessed with the work of Edgar Allen Poe. In the course of the novel we learn not only a great deal about one of the most complex and elusive figures of nineteenth-century American literature but also about Antarctica and the spirit of adventure that led people to map this vast white space. Though the novel is set very much in the present, it takes us back to Poe’s time and place, breathing new life into a novel – The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket – that has, for the most part, been forgotten. I didn’t see Jon Cusack in the recent movie “The Raven” that is based loosely on Poe’s life, but I have a feeling that this novel is a whole lot better than that movie. The novel is irreverent, genuinely funny, and provides one of the most honest and enjoyable critiques of what I do for a living.

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