Tag Archives: Mat Johnson

The painter of trite and the spectre of white

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. 

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Approved authors 7

It’s taking longer than I expected, but I’m talking about some of the books I’ve read and appreciated the most this past year. The majority were published in 2008 and a few were written by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but they’re here because I enjoyed them and I think you will, too.

INCOGNEGRO by Mat Johnson, Vertigo, 2008.

Incognegro is not simply the most exciting thriller I read in 2008, it’s also one of the best historical tales and a pretty intriguing mystery to boot — a place where where themes leading back to Ralph Ellison, James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, Richard Wright and Raymond Chandler merge, entwine and draw together into a clean, satisfying narrative knot. And because it arrives in the form of a boldly drawn graphic novel, you don’t even have to wonder what the film version would look like. It’s already there on the page.

mat-johnsonJohnson’s story, chiefly set in the Depression-era American South, centers on Zane Pinchback, an African-American writer for a newspaper modeled on the New York Amsterdam News. Pinchback is so light-skinned that he can pass for white, enabling him to travel undercover and write stories exposing lynchings under the nom de voyage Incognegro. (Johnson bases this partly on the exploits of Walter White, whose autobiography A Man Called White is one of the overlooked classics of American literature.) After one too many close calls with murderous rustics, Pinchback is ready to pack it in, start writing under his own name and take his place among the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but a murder case with a personal connection draws him to Mississippi for another Incognegro assignment, this time burdened with an equally ambitious but far less clever companion whose blundering threatens to land them in serious trouble. It also draws the attention of a Ku Klux Klan official who is determined to unmask the Incognegro and make him the guest of honor at an extra-special necktie party.

Since Incognegro is a graphic novel, I can’t offer any standout passages, but this sample page (which shows Pinchback trying to rescue a young black man while presenting himself as a member of the Klan) should give you a taste, as well as an example of Warren Pleece’s dramatic artwork:


Johnson’s story is loaded with insider details on Klan lingo and practices, such as dropping AYAK and AKIA — codes for “Are you a Klansman?” and “A Klansman I am” — into conversation. Johnson keeps ringing new changes on the themes of identity and racial roles, bringing it all to a head with a honey of a twist ending.

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The black pages

Via GalleyCat I found this interesting call to literary missionary activity: buying books by black authors for white people.

So: Attention, lit-mart shoppers! I would suggest John Edgar Wideman for those ambitious readers who don’t mind tackling somebody whose reputation for demanding modernist writing is well-earned. Wideman goes in for stream-of-consciousness narrations and abrupt shifts in viewpoint that require some athleticism from his readers — think The Sound and the Fury, or the trickier passages in Ulysses — but his work is well worth the effort. His affecting memoir Brothers and Keepers might be a good introduction, followed by Philadelphia Fire, a novel loosely derived from the 1985 confrontation between the Philadelphia police and an eccentric back-to-nature cult called MOVE.

While I’m at it, let me give a shout out to Wesley Brown, who isn’t as prolific as I’d like him to be. I read his first novel, Tragic Magic, after taking his creative writing class at Rutgers University, and he was one of the first people I interviewed for a series of author profiles written for a Central Jersey print. The story follows a young Vietnam-era radical and conscientious objector who has just done a stretch in prison and is back on the street, trying to make sense of his life, women, masculinity and the dangerous cross-currents of life as a black man in the early 1970s. The prose plays in your head like a private performance of the greatest jazz group ever assembled: a Thelonious Monk melody line here, a Charlie Parker solo there, voices orchestrated by Duke Ellington and a stormy Charles Mingus bass line driving the whole thing forward. The more ambitious followup, Darktown Strutters, makes play with the rise of Jim Crow as it blends fictional and historical characters. Brown is sometimes compared with Ishmael Reed, and the comparison flatters both writers.

I would also recommend Mat Johnson’s graphic novel Incognegro, a gripping blend of historical fiction and noir that was one of the best things I’ve read this year. Next I’ll want to read Johnson’s The Great Negro Plot: An Urban Historical.

During a recent spate of recreational ricochet reading — funny how books that have been on your shelves for decades suddenly seem to demand you take them down for another look — I also renewed acquaintances with two Seventies-vintage science fiction authors: Samuel R. Delany, whose story collection Aye, And Gomorrah presents this often demanding writer in his most accessible guises, and Octavia Butler, whose celebrated novel Kindred uses SF devices to ring several intriguing, sometimes appalling changes on the nature of racism and the psychological (and physical) wounds it inflicts on everyone it touches.

And no list such as this would be complete without a pitch for friend, colleague and blogbud Charles H. Johnson, whose two poetry collections are more than worth your while. Unlike some of the writers mentioned here, Johnson has some excellent work posted on the Intertubes, so I’ll just  let his words do the talking.

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