Book Review: ‘Pilot Impostor’ Proves James Hannaham One of America’s Most Inventive Writers

James Hannaham’s first two novels, “God Says No” of 2009, and “Delicious Foods,” winner of the 2015 PEN / Faulkner Prize, propelled him to the top of inventive American writers. From now on, the publication of “Pilot Impostor” should secure its place at the top. Hannaham is not only creative or incredibly gifted or intellectual or supremely original, but he is also all of these distinctions at the same time. This book defying genres of compressed prose, poetry and imagery is the product of a mind – and a heart – pushing the artistic speedometer to the red line.

Its genesis was a flight to Lisbon just after the 2016 election. Hannaham read Fernando Pessoa, the great modernist who inhabited a multiplicity of voices he called heteronyms – some 70+ characters who were both aspects of him – even and whole fabric creations. This protean assemblage offers Hannaham the perfect entryway for an exploration of self, awareness and creativity.

“Pilot Impostor” is the record of a black man observing himself observe a deeply particular moment. The controls of the American experiment were newly in the hands of a man who embodied the “poisoned cocktail of rigged experience and self-confidence,” as Hannaham described in an essay in Bookforum. The role of algorithms in determining what we perceive was increasingly insidious. And he was on his way to a country which had given birth to both the transatlantic slave trade and the strange genius of Pessoa.

The book delves into these themes, and many more, all linked by Hannaham’s visual art and short textual performances, stills from aerial disaster videos, screenshots and fragments of the work of Pessoa. The book is fused so well that it’s hard to extract an example, but I was particularly struck by a list piece titled “To Confound Forensics”. This surreal compilation of ways to get away with murder (# 16: “Be a chimera.”)

Hannaham suggests that each of us now encompasses such a multitude of heteronyms, to fuel algorithms that then feed us, can make anyone a Pessoa. What is the self and how can we know it? The role of chance in determining experience is perhaps the primary subject, but far from the only one, of this ingeniously faceted book. It comes back again and again to the weird fact that much of life now takes place inside a box outside of ourselves to which we outsource our thinking. The computer looks at things for us, thanks to the removal of the eye from the camera; he remembers things that we will forget; with its help, we create alternative “profiles” or selves.

The idea that consciousness is only a contingent arrangement of fragments of experience is reflected in both the structure and content of the book. Hannaham’s short texts – philosophical inquiries, experimental and speculative fictions, prose and poems, even a Bowlesian sonnet – each respond to a brief portion of Pessoa’s poetry floating suggestively in the page margins. These in turn respond to each other, while the author’s subtle ordering raises the question of whether it is possible to one day know the “real” Pessoa. (Answer: is there really someone?)

“Pilot Impostor” has as many beautiful gears as a Swiss watch. Its many organizing principles mean that self-creation only happens over time – we become more “ourselves” as we accumulate the sediment of what happens to us by chance. Some of them are accidents. Some are delivered in our DNA. But we still make something of it – a cognitively informed narrative, a fictional projection, a work of art. Or a book that accomplishes them all.

The visuals are here in conversation with the texts, themselves in conversation with the fragments of Pessoa. Video footage of air disasters, as well as hoax footage that is proliferating online – like the meme known as the “9/11 Tourist Guy” that claimed to show a man on the deck of the World Trade Center moments before a plane does not strike – comment on the ways in which digital obsessions are taking shape.

Other images include the miniature photo assemblies of surfaces (Portuguese tiles, stained glass and mosaics) and openings (sky, grids and perforations), still carrying their digital sizing tools. With them, the artist proposes that factuality is contextual and that perception is only an artifice of composition.

Hannaham’s signature sneaky humor is often accompanied by a surprise touch of acid. Her debut novel is a comedic but compassionate exploration of race, sexuality, and religious hypocrisy that tempers her outrage with absurdism. His second postulates the persistence of the plantation slavery system in contemporary society; where there were chains and whips, there is now drug addiction, for the same purpose. Famous, one of the central characters of “Delicious Foods”, with his own idiosyncratic voice, is crack. Ventriloquism is just one of Hannaham’s many talents.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is critic and author of “The Place You Love Is Gone”, among other books.

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