One of my reasons for exploring the Guardian’s ‘best 100 novels written in English’ list is to try and find some hidden gems – books that I have not come across before that are really worth reading. Poe’s only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ meets only one of these criteria – I had not heard of it before – and now I know why.
The novel is an adventure story, following Pym as he stows away in a ship, running away to sea against his father’s wishes. He is aided by a friend, one of the crew members, and plans to reveal his presence when the ship is past the point of no return. However, a mutiny spoils this plan, and he has to remain hidden, without help from his friend, for a long time. His privations are detailed in the first person narrative in considerable, not to say tedious, detail. Finally he emerges from his hiding place, and helps in a counter-mutiny. Having secured control of the ship Pym and friends are immediately struck by a storm, which rages for days, leaving them with very little food or drink, and their ship a wreck. Again Poe details the long days of surviving on the wreck – this is actually a very short novel, but it certainly didn’t feel it while reading – until they finally resort to cannibalism, choosing one of their number to eat by lots.
Finally rescued, Pym joins another ship voyaging to the southern seas. Previous voyages of exploration are recounted in yet more detail. The purpose of all this detail is presumably to give the narrative a sense of realism, although I found the various adventures completely unconvincing. While stowed away on his first ship, for example, Pym is joined for several days by his pet dog, who his crew-member friend just happened to take along with him. Despite the ship having been taken over by the mutineers the dog at no point barks or otherwise makes his presence know. As soon as the storm arrives the dog stops being mentioned, presumably thrown overboard.
The voyage ends in the discovery of a mysterious island group deep in the Antarctic, when the rest of the group apart from Pym and a friend are massacred by duplicitous natives. Escaping from the island by canoe, Pym travels south towards the pole, when the novel ends abruptly with the appearance of a mysterious figure.
I’ve read incomplete novels where the author died mid-composition that end with more coherence and naturalism than this. It just stops, and it is obvious that the author, having reached a word count (or equivalent) thought “that will do” and moved on. The “editor’s” postscript (which incidentally is not included in the kindle version of the novel I initially read, which is really irritating) is a fig leaf that does nothing to compound the absurdity of the ending.
I look for at least one of the following in any novel: characterisation, a decent story, some interesting use of language, or some ideas. Poe provides none of the above. Pym himself hardly emerges from his narrative at all – we really have no idea what he is like, other than extraordinarily lucky in surviving his various in extremis situations, which of course we know he does from the novel’s ludicrous subtitle. (Comprising the Details of Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery on Board the American Brig Grampus, on Her Way to the South Seas, in the Month of June, 1827. With an Account of the Recapture of the Vessel by the Survivors; Their Shipwreck and Subsequent Horrible Sufferings from Famine; Their Deliverance by Means of the British Schooner Jane Guy; the Brief Cruise of this Latter Vessel in the Atlantic Ocean; Her Capture, and the Massacre of Her Crew Among a Group of Islands in the Eighty-Fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude; Together with the Incredible Adventures and Discoveries Still Farther South to Which That Distressing Calamity Gave Rise.) The story is extremely episodic and predictable, a loosely connected series of incidents. The language is inoffensive, at best, and the only idea worthy of the name is the suggestion that the south polar regions might lead to undiscovered continents, peoples, and species. I am a little more sympathetic to this final point – the world was still being explored in the 1830’s, and new species being found, so this wasn’t as ludicrous as it sounds.
Poe introduces some classic elements of gothic horror into the narrative – cannibalism, pirates, a ghost-ship, entombment, and so on, but ultimately the novel is as spooky as a Halloween costume in June.