Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of fiction, never wrote a novel. He tried, and even published some long works that he thought would one day become a proper novel in the vein of Tolstoy, but Chekhov never managed to figure out how to structure a novel-length work. He moans about it in letters to his publisher and promises one month to finish and the next month he throws up his hands and declares the novel an impossible form. Some people, maybe, are best left off as miniaturists. Which is fine. Chopin wrote no symphonies, and a great deal of the best music of the “classical” period is the chamber music writ by guys best known for their orchestral works. So small is nothing to be ashamed of. The short story is a form that continues to confound me, after all. This preamble is all to say that some people shouldn’t write novels.
Edgar Allen Poe, possibly, is one of those people. His short novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, while certainly influential over everyone from Melville to Twain and beyond, is not a very good book. Formally, it’s a hash. The three sections have little to do with each other and the ending is abrupt (though the endnote by Poe is amusing and points to one possible interpretation of the final act of the story), and there has been considerable critical noise to the effect that Poe simply abandoned the novel when he realized he had no ending. A good case can be made for Pym being an artistic failure. And nobody can tell you what Poe was getting at with this book; what—if any—the overarching themes are is an unanswerable question though plenty of critics have given it a go. The last footnote in the text is quite long and really funny; if I had the book to hand I’d quote it, for it lists about fifty ways Pym has been interpreted, as everything from promotion of the “hollow-earth” theory to a wish-fulfillment fantasy of Poe’s having to do with his hated foster father. A great deal of evidence supports the idea that the third act, at least, is a shrill warning to the South that the Northern states with their abolitionists are going to stir up a bloody rebellion among the black slaves and the white race ought to be wary because you cannot trust the North and you certainly cannot trust the black race. Poe was writing in 1837 and lots of critics have pointed out all of the white=good/black=evil images in Pym. See also, I suppose, Mat Johnson’s recent novel Pym, which I have not read but I’ve read about, and which book actually got me to read the Poe, for I plan to read Mr Johnson’s novel this year some time.
So not a good book, as I say, a total mess that takes forever to get anywhere and may at its heart carry a frightened racist message. Still, one can’t help but see how Pym has influenced other writers. Moby-Dick is Poe’s novel writ much larger, Melville showing Poe how it ought to be done. Everyone should know that Moby-Dick is a masterpiece even though it is a leisurely stroll with many nonfiction digressions and a pretty abrupt ending, just like Poe’s book. You can see ripples of Pym in Moby-Dick, and you might see other ripples in Huck Finn, though the message about race is turned on its head by Twain. Certainly you can also draw comparisons between Pym and Heart of Darkness, with Conrad hewing pretty closely to Poe's symbolism and possible fear of a black planet. Hmm. Conrad wrote in 1899. Twain in 1884. Melville in 1851. I don't know what any of those dates really mean regarding theme and interpretation or why I added them to this post, but there they are for the curious.
There’s more to be said about Poe’s only novel, but I’m too scattered, too whelmed with deadlines at the office, and too much not the right guy to speak intelligently about literature to say more than I have. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is an odd little failure of a book, but I’m glad I read it. I am sure that there are many novels that fail as novels yet are still worth reading.