I’m reading Mat Johnson’s novel Pym. One of the characters is a fan of an artist pretty obviously modeled on Thomas Kinkade, the kitsch-sodden “Painter of Light” who recently died at 54. When the character asks a friend what he thinks of one painting, the friend replies: “It looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.” That line’s been cracking me up all morning. It may not be as elegant as Joan Didion’s takedown — she thought Kinkade’s cottages and houses looked so comfy that they bordered on sinister, as though they’d been designed to trap Hansel and Gretel — but it gets the job done.
As for Pym, I’m having a great time with it. The hero is an African American academic — “blackademic,” as he puts it — obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s enigmatic novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. His discovery of a manuscript suggesting Poe’s work was based on fact leads him to charter an expedition to Antarctica in search of Tsalal, Poe’s island of ultimate blackness, where the natives are so dark even their teeth are black. (Don’t worry if you haven’t read the novel — hardly anyone can get through it. Johnson provides a perfectly serviceable precis.) As you would expect from the author of Incognegro, Johnson turns notions about racial identity and prejudice on their heads, and the book is loaded with satirical jabs that can make you wince as often as you laugh.