Classic Worth Reading: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

It’s his only complete novel. It’s kind of weird. Yes, it’s Poe – dark and morbid and full of all that sinister/graphic stuff. But it is also comical, mind-blowing (in that Post-Modern, irritating sort of way) and serves to further solidify Poe as a mischievous, quick-witted sprite – a modern day Puck wreaking havoc on his readers with moody fantasies and wild inventions. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe is ridiculous and hellish and disturbing all at once…and that’s what makes it a “classic worth reading.”

The story begins with a teenage boy and his best friend, who, following a drunken night of debauchery, decide to take a sailboat out to sea and confront a raging storm. After a death-defying escape, the boys realize they’ve tasted only enough adventure to wet their appetite, and conspire to stowaway on a Nantucket whale ship in search for excitement on the high seas. What begins as an innocent, young seafaring journey, contorts into a dark and terrifying tale of mutiny, cannibalism, savagery—even death.

But don’t be fooled. Poe isn’t merely exploring the dark-side of life at sea. Read closely and you’ll realize that he is messing with you. Poe is feeding his readers the biggest fish tale of all times, and we’ve swallowed it (some knowingly, some not) for decades. Of course, many of the early 19th century critics either ignored it entirely, or read Poe’s self-described “silly novel” as an elaborate hoax.

Who is Arthur Gordon Pym (the observant reader will recognize that the narrator bears a similar name to Poe himself) and is his account of this disturbing sea journey true? Poe’s problematic narrator and his suspect credentials, remains questionable, as well as his memory of his own story. Poe begins by declaring the story and the narrator as “respectable,” but the adventure quickly becomes entrenched in unbelievable details and gross superlatives.

Poe is writing in the early 19th Century in a style that blurs the lines between fact and fiction; He creates no clear boundary between life and death, no distinction between real and unreal. He crafts a verbal optical illusion for the reader, switching the point-of-view from third person to first at oddly intense and confusing moments. But this isn’t merely a case of point-of-view violation (Poe was a seasoned writer at the time of writing this novel). He’s doing it on purpose. Each time the reader gets comfortable, he shifts boundaries. It is difficult to believe any character is who he says they are (is the dog a monster, or his trusted friend?). Don’t expect to sail into traditional narrative waters while reading this gothic sea tale – it ain’t gonna happen.

But despite choppy waters, I could not help but be pulled-in, intrigued by the audacity of this insidious author to write such a “silly novel” at a time when it was thought that fiction must refer to all that is real and known in the world. And to be sure, despite the obvious dramatic inflation, the novel is dark — really dark.

I found the disjointed plot points, as well as the obscene descriptions of wounds, death, cannibalism, drifting ships of copses (and the like), to be a pleasantly uncomfortable experience. Although I felt intellectually mocked by descriptions of drunkenness disguised as sobriety, death-gaping wounds that heal in hours, and water that can be cut and layered, I couldn’t help but find amusement in the comic wit of Poe. And let’s face it, it’s rare to find a novel that simultaneously makes you laugh and scares the sh&% out of you.

If you love to get lost in the art of clever, unique, and well-crafted narratives, take this sea adventure, said to have inspired MOBY DICK, to the very edge of the known world – then journey beyond it. It’s the classic everyone should have read in high school. Don’t let just the literary critics have all the fun (they’ve been musing over this work for years). Jump on board this dark ship. It’s worth the ride.

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