Monday, April 6, 2015

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe is out of his element here
Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his short stories and poems, but he did write one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838. The story is told in the first person by the title character, sometimes in the form of journal entries, other times not. Pym relates the details of a perilous and bizarre nautical adventure. The book begins as the sort of seafaring tale one might expect from Herman Melville or James Fenimore Cooper. About halfway through it takes a turn toward science fiction and evolves into something more reminiscent of Jules Verne. Unfortunately, neither of these genres is really Poe’s strong suit.

The most aggravating thing about the novel is how unbelievably slow it is. As a habitual reader of classic literature, I’m well aware that Poe was not writing for a 21st century attention span, but even when you compare this novel to the works of his aforementioned contemporaries, it’s like it was written in slow motion. Even Daniel Defoe’s plodding Robinson Crusoe, published more than a century earlier, seems positively frenetic by comparison. In the first chapter of Pym’s narrative, Poe describes a shipwreck scene in such extensive and minute detail that he manages to render it a tedious experience. Next, Pym’s pal Augustus gets a job aboard the ship Grampus. Pym, hungry for adventure, decides to accompany his friend as a stowaway. Pym gets trapped in the hold and seemingly forgotten by his friend. When Augustus finally reappears days later, it takes a flashback of three entire snail’s-pace chapters to get Pym and the reader up to speed on the story’s event. Like Melville’s Moby-Dick or Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the novel is interspersed with nonfiction interludes, allowing Poe to discourse on topics like the stowage practices of ocean-going vessels, the history of Antarctic exploration, or the procedure for harvesting and processing sea cucumber. Yawn. With the exception of a gripping moment here or there, it’s surprisingly pedestrian. Finally in chapter 18 (out of 25) events begin to occur that distinguish the book from run-of-the-mill nautical genre fare.

Horror is really Poe’s forte, and the best portions of the book are the more macabre scenes in which he’s describing a corpse or a hideous death. The book does include a few memorably chilling moments. Poe is less successful with the sci-fi material, however. Science fiction is best when it’s based on science. Pym’s adventure really more accurately falls under the realm of fantasy, as it bears little grounding in reality. When a new animal species is discovered, for example, Verne would provide some evolutionary reason for the creature’s appearance. Poe, on the other hand, merely strives to envision something weird-looking. Red teeth? Sure, why not. No justification needed. Despite these complaints, the bizarre second half of the book is an improvement in entertainment value over its tedious beginning. Poe gives the reader another reason to dislike the novel, however, when he refuses to provide an ending. He merely truncates the tale at an awkward point of incompletion and tacks on a dull epilogue.

Poe is a great writer, but this is not a great book. In my opinion, it most likely would have faded into obscurity by now if it didn’t have Poe’s name on it. Jules Verne, on the other hand, liked The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym so much he wrote a sequel for it, entitled An Antarctic Mystery. I look forward to reading that one, as I’m sure Verne will handle this subject matter far better than his predecessor.
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