I was reminded of Dan Simmons’ Drood when reading this. They have similar departures, bur Drood is much the superior novel. Whereas Dickens and the original Edwin Drood novel inspired Simmons, Johnson skewers Edgar Allen Poe and his only novel which was about the Pym of his own work: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).
Chris Jaynes has been denied tenure at his university and so decides to avail himself of the opportunity to mount an expedition to Antarctica and discover the real or imagined Tsalal. In Johnson’s sights is not only Poe, but academia itself along with racism in America. Some minor targets also include the junk food industry (Little Debbie snacks is a recurring theme). If there is an overarching idea though, I’d say it was that of slavery and the history of race in America. Over and over again he comes back to this in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes subliminal. If you sat Johnson down, I’d bet he’d agree this was the reason for writing this book, to discover what he calls “the pathology of whiteness.”
That is how they stay so white: by refusing to accept blemish or history. Whiteness isn’t about being something, it is about being no thing, nothing, an erasure. Covering over the truth with layers of blank reality just as the snowstorm was now covering our tent, whipping away all traces of our existence from this pristine landscape.
And the pristine landscape is personified in the landscape paintings of that white-bread of white-bread artists, Thomas Kincaide (here Thomas Karvel) who has built a perfectly insular bio-dome in Antarctica. Anyone who works with people with Kincaide screen savers knows just how antiseptic and insular they feel. They’re creepy.
The real problem with the book for me was the hook itself. I think that Johnson could have written a much more efficient and meaningful novel without being tied to the Poe saga.