A recommendation from Jessica at Greenlight Bookstore led me to pick up Mat Johnson’s Pym, which I read earlier this week. On the surface, the description reads like an archetypal adventure story: an academic leading an expedition to Antarctica in search of a lost civilization. And that description does, in fact, serve to describe this novel. Except that Johnson’s working on a number of levels: this is at once an adventure story, an academic comedy, a satire of perceptions of race in the US, and a deserved poke in the eye directed at a number of notable literary racists. (Also, Thomas Kinkade.) And Johnson pulls it off, while also addressing another question: how we, as readers, must navigate books that draw us in even as certain aspects of them repel us.
My sister is writing an undergrad thesis about the end of W.H.’s Auden writing days, in particular his classical (almost mythic) approach in an era of post-Beats free verse. I’ve been trying to get learned about it all, largely through two pretty great vehicles: a pretty lively merger of closely read lit criticism and biography called Later Auden by Edward Mendelson, and Vintage’s Selected Poems by Auden himself, hand-picked by Mendelson. I chose their “Selected” volume over their phonebook-thick Complete Poems, not merely because I don’t wish to skim an encyclopedia while standing on the 4 Train, but because Auden had one of his coolest poems, “September 1, 1939”, removed from the Completed tome, thinking it a disingenuous look at the day in question.
Purchased this week but not completed or necessarily even cracked:
- John Gregory Dunne’s Monster: Living Off the Big Screen (purchased from a street vendor on the Upper West Side, somewhere near 72th and Columbus).
- A box set compilation of Penguin paperbacks found at a midtown Housing Works entitled Writers from the Other Europe: Philip Roth, General Editor (containing Kundera’s Laughable Loves, Schulz’s Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass, Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Kis’ furiously awesome A Tomb for Boris Davidovich).
- Blues People: Negro Music in White America by Amiri Baraka (f/k/a Leroi Jones), a Staff Picks recommendation from BookThugNation after Vol. 1’s uproariously successful reading event there this past Sunday.
Lastly, it bears mentioning that an esteemed member of the Volume 1 family (perhaps the esteemed member) has just announced that he is engaged to be wed. In wishing him the very best, two faint quotations on marriage came to mind. The first hardly suits him, from Balzac’s Physiology of Marriage: “The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.” To know this guy is to know that he is at the very least a gorilla, if not one of those smart gorillas that learned sign language. A Koko, if you will. The second came from, of all people, Lyndon Freakin’ Johnson, who once said, “I have learned that only two things are necessary to keep one’s wife happy. First, let her think she’s having her own way. And second, let her have it.” For the well-being of our man and the fortitude of this fine publication, I say, in one of my few accords with LBJ: let her have it.