Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe only wrote one full-length novel. The modern reader may not hear much about it anymore, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t plenty influential in its day. Baudelaire translated it into French and riffed on it in some of his own poetry. Jules Verne is said to have greatly admired the book, even penning what can only be called a “fan-fiction” sequel called An Antarctic Mystery . Henry James alluded to the book in The Golden Bowl  and Jorge Luis Borges praised it as Poe’s greatest work. Moby Dick may have drawn pretty heavily on parts of it, and readers of Life of Pi  (or viewers of the gorgeous new movie by the same name) may not even realize that the tiger’s name, Richard Parker, is an homage to Poe’s only novel.

Having said all that, I can’t remember a book I’ve read in the past couple years whose ending was so unworthy of its beginning. In reality, it’s kind of impossible to give Pym  a fair reading in this day and age. In the latter half of the book Poe was postulating about the completely unknown world of the Antarctic- something even casual modern readers know quite a bit about nowadays. For this reason, the whole last half of the book fell flat for me. But the beginning was something else!

This book started out promising intrigue and adventure, and did a great job delivering on both counts. Our narrator is secreted away in the inaccessible lower decks of a ship by his friend, the nephew of the captain. They agree that they need to wait a certain period of time before exposing their stowaway plan, so that it becomes impractical to turn back to port. But when the prearranged period comes and goes with no word at all from the friend, Pym is left in his stuffy hellhole of a hiding place, having exhausted his supplies of food or drink and having no clue what’s going on above deck. As the narrator plays out his mental and physical suffering, we’re treated to some classic Poe-ian angst, every bit as good as the suffering in the “Tell-tale Heart.”

From there the story leaps into a classic adventure tale, filled with mutiny, violent sea storms, starvation, cannibalism and finally, rescue.

And here’s where I wish I had put the book down. The survivors are rescued by a boat en route to the Antarctic for the purpose of exploration. (Keep in mind, no one knew of Antarctica when Poe put his story down on paper.) But what follows is page after page of sleep-inducing, faux-scientific detail about the flora and fauna on various islands in the southern seas. Seriously, by the time you’ve used the word “declivity” for the sixth or seventh time, I think it’s safe to say your story has come off the rails.

Their discoveries include a black-skinned, black-teethed race of men, and some fifteen foot long relative of the polar bear. The crew is eventually slaughtered by this strange native people, all except for Pym and another man, who continue south in a dinghy into mysterious, milky-white seas where a giant magical figure appears out of nowhere and brings the book to a close.

Really, that’s how it ends. I guess if I had picked up the book when it was published in 1838, and the Antarctic region was still as unknown to Poe’s readers as some distant planets are to us, it might have fared a little better in my judgment. As it is, though, I can only say that Poe started out strong, then put me to sleep, then woke me up and repeatedly jumped the proverbial shark.

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