Snakes on a Plane

On James Hannaham’s Pilot Impostor

On December 7, 1993, a Jamaican man bought a ticket at the Flatbush Avenue Long Island Rail Road station in Downtown Brooklyn, New York. His name was Colin Ferguson, and he was 34 years old. He boarded the 5:33 pm train heading eastbound to Hicksville, a rush hour trip of about 80 passengers, and found himself a seat at the southwestern end of the vehicle. As the train approached the Merrilon Avenue Station the man entered the aisle, drew a shotgun and opened fire.

The funny thing about panicking is that you tend to insist on your own right to panic. As a physiological response it’s supposed to agitate you, thrust your body into fight-or-flight mode. You lose your grip on rationality. Yet in that moment of crisis, you convince yourself that the only sensible reaction is to shriek like a buzzard. The shooter’s right behind me, you think. I have no choice but to lose my shit.

Okay, sorry. Ferguson shot 25 people that night; six of them died, 19 suffered injuries. I shouldn’t call the shooting funny. But I keep going back to the part in the New York Times report when the crew tried to make an intervention. A passenger onboard alleged that he watched the train’s conductor poke his head into the car, take a hasty glimpse at Ferguson, and turn right around in the opposite direction, “making an about-face.” I laughed at that part. I laughed again at the part when the MTA defended the crew’s performance, claiming the conductor had acted on the advice of the engineer: “He thought it best not to open the doors immediately because two of the cars were not at the platform.” I suppose it’s true that opening the doors could have further endangered the passengers—the LIRR tracks are electrified at 750 volts—but still, the statement strikes me as an ass-cover. The conductor just lost his shit, I think. He panicked at the bloodshed and flew the coop.

About half the pieces collected in James Hannaham’s new prose collection Pilot Impostor hinge on that moment of panic. “I’m such a great person,” writes the author in one passage, a reproduced exchange Ferguson reportedly shared with his landlord. “There must be only one thing holding me back. It must be white people.” The prose poem, coyly titled “Black Rage,” alludes to the media spectacle that unfolded in the shooting’s wake. The massacre gripped the public’s attention, but even more polarizing was the perpetrator’s professed desire to catalyze a race war. “Racism had driven him insane…Earlier, he had warned his enemies—Black rage will get you!”

The day of the shooting, Ferguson compiled a series of grievances. He stuffed his pockets with notes about his hatred of white people, of “racism by Caucasians and Uncle Tom Negroes.” The evidence was damning, and consistent with his personal history. His former landlord recalled him as obsessed with racial uprising, with enacting “some apocryphal-type doom scenario” in which Black people supplanted “their pompous rulers and oppressors.” In the weeks leading up to the act, he asked his tenant to vacate the building.

The author is clearly poking fun at Ferguson, making a joke out of the shooting. But he leaves a few beats empty, invites the reader to indulge his worst suspicions. Do I laugh at “Black Rage,” shrug off the broken taboo? Or do I shake my head in righteous disgust, denounce the passage as offensive?

A novelist as well a visual artist, performer and art critic, Hannaham is no stranger to the irreverent. He chooses subjects that we regard as marginalized—the fat closeted Black man Gary of his 2008 novel God Says No, the drug-addled sex worker Darlene of the 2015 PEN/Faulkner-winner Delicious Foods—and strips them of the lyricism that we might typically expect. In its place he deploys a morbid sense of humor, a bawdiness that seems just about to slip into edgelord antics. Darlene, who later enters a human trafficking ring, gets an even harsher treatment than Ferguson: the opening chapters of Delicious Foods find her ambushed in a roadside attack, raped and beaten senseless by two white redneck johns. When she spits out three of her teeth, she is nothing if not resilient; she proceeds to collect the loose teeth and stick them in her pocket. “I guess that made Darlene go more nuts. She not vain, but she had to keep her looks to get business…Man, she wanted that forty dollars something bad.”

Like “Black Rage,” the Darlene passage is riveting, rich with humor and insight. But we might ask why, upon our first encounter with the character, we’re being prompted to laugh at her plight rather than sympathize. We might point out that male artists routinely use violence against women as a crutch for their ideas. What’s so liberating about button-pushing? The scene would not be out of place in a Michel Houellebecq novel. Isn’t Hannaham just playing devil’s advocate?

For what it’s worth, I laughed. I like the mischief, the flair for the provocative. But I can’t always tell who bears the brunt of the critique. As a white reader, too, I worry that I’m laughing too loud. Sooner or later I expect the author to drop the pretense of poetics and, rhetorically speaking, brandish a weapon. “So many people put their trust in me without having met me,” he writes in Pilot Impostor. “It’s as if I am a pilot without knowing how to fly an airplane…But everything I did become, I faked at first.”

James Hannaham tells jokes.

Ultimately, Hannaham wants us to chill out. Rather than simply react, he’s asking us to pause, to think honestly and critically about our shortcomings as readers. Why do we expect the lyricism in the first place? Would we rather pretend that he’s emulating James Baldwin?

That we as viewers have shortcomings to think about may strike you as an old-fashioned attitude. For those of you in the avant-garde, or for those who fetch the avant-garde’s dry cleaning, there is a certain sense of ambivalence towards the mainstream’s embrace of our ideals. You’re happy to see the public expand its class consciousness, and you agree that more white people should be reading Claudia Rankine. But if you work in academia or publishing or the art world, you’re probably not too endeared by calls to “decolonize your positionality.” I do that every day at work, you think. It’s literally my job.

In promotion for Delicious Foods, Hannaham discussed his problems with writing fiction under a liberal paradigm of race and justified his use of comedy and shock factor. “I don’t like the idea that serious literature can’t make jokes,” he told writer John Bowe. “Humor is a method of survival.” The interview provides crucial context for Pilot Impostor. The author distrusts appeals to objectivity; he wants to address a system of violence, but he worries that conventional modes of storytelling do the topic a disservice. The lyricism of the period piece tends to obscure, rather than illuminate, the real-life stakes: “So many people believe slavery is over. As a black novelist, almost as a rite of passage, I wanted to write a novel that dealt with slavery…But I didn’t have to write a period piece, which was both terrifying and exhilarating.”

Maybe the back-and-forth hides more than it reveals. After all, a healthy middle ground exists between James Baldwin and Michel Houellebecq, between Claudia Rankine and Vanessa Place. Hannaham is not the first Black writer to grapple with this tension, nor is he the only. Even so, I’m curious as to why the shock factor goes unremarked by critics. At the time of publication Delicious Foods received widespread coverage, yet most reviewers opted for platitudes, praising the novel’s portrayal of human trafficking as “bold” and “delightful” while glossing over the more inflammatory moments.

I imagine he must be frustrated. The platitudes suggest an uneasiness with the material, even a lack of cultural competency. If it’s true, as he argues, that the reliance on clichéd forms is “almost like an addiction,” perhaps Pilot Impostor can serve as a highly-welcome antidote.

The collection opens in early 2017, just two months after President Trump’s inauguration. Hannaham boards a flight from Cape Verde to Lisbon, and on the flight he pages through his copy of Pessoa & Co., Richard Zenith’s 1998 English translation of the acclaimed Portuguese modernist poet. The parallel drawn between Trump and Pessoa is clever: only one of these figures had access to Twitter, but both were wildly prolific, and both routinely succumbed to their reactionary streaks. A self-professed nationalist and an enemy of the Catholic Church, Pessoa went so far as to pen passionate odes to Portuguese slave traders, featured most prominently in his poem The Keeper of Sheep: “I’ve never kept flocks / But it’s like I kept them.”

In Lisbon, Hannaham pursues a daily practice: read one entry in Zenith’s anthology, respond to Pessoa in whatever form he pleases. Ferguson makes his eerie appearance, but so do Trump, the American fraudster Frank Abagnale Jr., and the failed Greek sea captain Yiannis Avranas. The multidisciplinary approach—poems, fictions, riddles, aphorisms—encourages associative thinking on the part of the reader. “Ooga booga jigga bigga,” writes the author. “Tutti frutti Djibouti mama comma no drama.”

If you find the form daunting, if you struggle to keep track of the connections—well, that’s sort of Hannaham’s strategy. In wreaking chaos, he pre-empts the reader’s urge to extract a straightforward message. The true theme of Pilot Impostor, it turns out, is our present-day relationship to books: what role does reading play in our lives? Do we exploit literature for ulterior motives? The form is meant to destabilize us, to make us forfeit our sense of control.

“Metaphysics?” asks Alberto Caiero. “What metaphysics do those trees have?”

In a blurb for Pilot Impostor the writer Campbell McGrath likens the book to a flight manual, to “an update of shape-shifting twentieth-century masters—Calvino, Borges, Perec…and most of all Pessoa.” Given that comparison, it helps to use the Trump/Pessoa parallel as a compass of sorts, an organizing principle for the text more broadly.

Critics tend to place Pessoa’s right-wing screeds into the context of his “heteronyms,” a device in which the poet invents and embodies a vast range of literary personae. Inspired by his forebear Walt Whitman (“Very well then, I contradict myself / I am large, I contain multitudes”), it’s estimated that Pessoa created over 130 heteronyms in his lifetime. A heteronym is meant to constitute an entity unto itself, and each one varies radically in tone, temperament and viewpoint. The voice of Alberto Caiero, the orphaned neophyte who bears credit for the slave trade odes, is not the same voice as that of Álvaro de Campos, slothful ship engineer, or Ricardo Reis, neo-Classicist pagan. You could even say the trio gets along poorly. “Reis believes in form, Campos in sensation,” writes the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. “Caiero doesn’t believe in anything. He exists.”

Caiero longs for pure, straightforward experience, unmolested by the psychic nuisance of “metaphysics”: “The only inner meaning of things / Is that they have no inner meaning at all.” A degree of removal is implied between the poet and the speaker. When Caiero rebukes “the mystery of things,” we’re not meant to read his professions literally. Rather, we understand that he’s writing in reaction to the social disarray wrought by the Industrial Revolution, which plays into the larger project of modernist thought. “My gaze is clear like a sunflower…I believe in the world as in a daisy / Because I see it. But I don’t think about it.”

Ultimately, Pessoa wants us to chill out. We all know a dude like Caiero, he’s saying. You probably rolled your eyes at him in freshman seminar. A present-day analogy is the pop psychologist Richard Dawkins, or any interlocutor of what critic Alex Nichols calls “New Atheism’s Idiot Heirs”: “This certain species of idiot is male, aggressively pedantic, self-professedly logical…They’re after the burst of dopamine that comes from feeling smarter than other people.” Pessoa is prompting us to laugh, to remind ourselves that in the grand scheme of life these dudes are harmless. “It figures you are a Gemini, Fernando,” writes Hannaham. “The long-dead man had no recourse / He was a recorpse.”

But how harmless are they, really? After all, as Nichols argues, it was under the guise of a joke that militant atheists pursued online harassment campaigns against female vloggers. The onslaught of early-2010s misogyny, leveraged most vociferously in the 2014 Gamergate debacle, hinged on the conceit that feminists like Anita Sarkeesian had “poisoned” the Internet, that they needed to quit whining and get back in the kitchen: “The idiots resented women and minorities…In order to continue this all-out war on feminists, these New-New Atheists had to break with reality altogether.”

The charge is ludicrous, the motives transparent. Indeed, a thin line exists between pedantry and straight-up bullying, between “FEMINISM vs. FACTS” and “grab her by the pussy.” Didn’t we say that Trump was a joke, too?

Hannaham is clearly sensitive to this dynamic, and he’s aware that he might unwittingly contribute to it. Even so, he seems to regard the back-and-forth as burdensome, as a distraction from the question at hand: “People will see what they want in the words, whether or not the artist meant them. On the contrary, this is untrue…Just joking. But not.”

“Well-known people split into multiple identities, public and private personae, hide behind various selves. When you ask nothing of them, they have trouble understanding.” Here, in the prose poem “Not Just,” the idea is to read Hannaham in the spirit of Pessoa: “The things he writes, Caiero says, mean the things he writes.” In a literal sense, what does the passage say? How about in a figurative sense? Which one strikes you as more plausible, the figurative meaning or the literal meaning? Carry on with this line of questioning for something like three minutes; by the end of that point, you’ll start to understand why the author is getting frustrated.

“Writing about things turns things into writings, not the other way around…I can write about the Tagus River, but I can’t make it flow through your fingers.” The passage, I think, is supposed to be nonsense. It’s basically a joke, a provocation.

Implicit in the passages, though, is Hannaham’s response to his critics, the ones who called Delicious Foods “bold” and “delightful.” Under our current paradigm, he suggests, readers expect him to confer moral clarity. They want him to collapse the distance between Pessoa and Caiero, to offer a condemnation of the right-wing screeds—or in other words, a lyrical meditation on “the tenacity of racism.” They assume that the author is their ideological ally. Perhaps he’d rather be their foe. Why not just fart in their faces? The white readers’ faces, I mean. Why not write pages and pages of utter nonsense just to see which critics call them “beautiful”?

“I don’t have ambitions or desires,” says Caiero. “Being a poet isn’t my ambition / It’s my way of being alone.”

Claudia Rankine tells jokes. I must have missed the memo.

“This is how you are a citizen,” she laughs. “Come on. Let it go. Move on.”

By nonsense I don’t mean to say that Pilot Impostor is trivial. Nor am I saying that Hannaham holds his readers in contempt. On the contrary, I get the sense that he’s fond of us, that he loves and cherishes our fallacies and contradictions. But he asks that we make a concession: that the oft-repeated call for literature to speak to social causes, to proclaim the bad orange man a threat to democracy, is unduly shouldered by Black writers.

Well, you can only fart in so many faces. Some of my readers might feel antagonized, so let me slow down. Perhaps it’s more effective to start with the passage on Trump, whose referents and signifiers are more immediately coded. Unlike Pessoa, we understand the context right away; even when we omit the name, we recognize the tone. “I am the best pilot, I’d give myself an A-plus-plus-plus,” writes the author. “I can fly any plane. I can fly spaceships!...If anyone tells you this is a difficult job, tell them that they are liars and that I said so.”

Pop quiz, bitches, closed-notebook. Do you think Trump is telling the truth? Of course you don’t. Donald Trump tells jokes. But take a moment, think honestly and critically. How the fuck do you really know?

“Sue me,” scoffs Lorrie Moore. “I sometimes find Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words.”

“Like the sound of cowbells / Beyond the curve of the road,” muses Caiero. “All my thoughts are peaceful. I’m just sorry about knowing they’re peaceful.”

“You’re fired!” shrieks Hannaham. “Going down? I’m not going down, you’re going down, that’s who’s going down!”

I fetch the avant-garde’s dry cleaning. My dreams in life are (A) to publish a novel, (B) to play a role in a feature film, and (C) to run a marathon in three hours flat. I think I can achieve all three of my goals, and I think I can do it without becoming a demagogue. But first I must fetch the avant-garde’s dry cleaning. Then I’ll unravel the conceit of my essay, which is to say I need your help.

Read me figuratively. My dying wish.

Is Hannaham exploiting his subjects? Do Hannaham’s subjects exploit him?

Is the author exploiting low art? As a shock jock, does he have credibility?

Is writing an act of exploitation?

“Science keeps discovering subjects never before thought to have significant consciousness or the ability to think actually do. In no particular order: crows, sunflowers, Black people.” I get that Hannaham says “no particular order.” But why does he place crows before sunflowers?

Am I, the critic, acting like a twerp?

What is your stance on bullies? Do you think bullying disrupts education? I mean disrupt in the literal sense, not the figurative sense. Do bullies make it harder for teachers to teach?

The other day I met a boy from Brazil. We split a tab of acid and I kissed him on the lips. Should I place a sunflower behind the boy’s ear?

Should I grab him by the pussy?

“Have white liberals eaten so much brown rice, blue corn, and quinoa that academics of the next millennium will theorize that Portland, Oregon was conquered by the Bolivians?”

Do Bolivians have an imperial history?

What about white liberals?

Mmm. Quinoa. Who’s hungry?

“Five hundred years later, the vegetarian pauses, a forkful of greens at her open mouth. Is this not okay? Is a salad sentient?”

I haven’t said anything about Hannaham’s motif of air disasters. I think he wants me to talk more about air disasters.

What is the role of art under Biden?

Do you resent having to read me figuratively?

“The things he writes, Caiero says, mean the things he writes.” In Hannaham’s case, we’re not supposed to read him literally. A removal is implied between the poet and the speaker. But how wide is the removal?

For real: how wide is the removal?

Okay, let’s say the removal is one million yards wide. Pretty wide, right? One million yards wide.

“The cop removes a piece of paper from his holster. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ he says. This is his weapon—the violence of words.”

“Dear white woman I nearly hit with my car this morning: here is the sequence of events from my perspective…Maybe you wanted to insult my intelligence. Maybe you thought something racist.”

“You must accept that my identity is whatever I say it is. But the I that I am consists of an ever-changing mystery, a marble swirl of oily rainbows and pond scum…I might be in the process of reinventing identity itself.”

“About death, we know nothing. But our impressions make it seem incredibly boring.... Bad like a business trip to Ohio where they make you pay upfront for a nondescript hotel where it’s the anniversary of 9/11 every morning.”

“If you ask me, she had it coming. If not me, someone else would’ve killed her. A different officer. One of her neighbors. They live in these places. Their own people kill each other all the time. They only get upset about it when an outsider comes in. It boils down to a lifestyle issue.”

“The Lapedo child is thought to have had one Homo neanderthalensis parent and one Homo sapiens parent…A mixed-race child. The mixed-race child of two homos.”

The mixed-race child of two homos.

I think James Hannaham is gay?

James Hannaham is gay.

Joking, guys. I’m just joking. Quinn Roberts tells jokes.

Five-six-seven-eight. Quinn Roberts tells jokes. Quinn Roberts tells jokes. Claudia Rankine tells jokes. Vanessa Place tells jokes. Lorrie Moore tells jokes. Rachel Cusk tells jokes. Ben Lerner tells jokes. Danzy Senna tells jokes. Lena Dunham tells jokes. Colson Whitehead tells jokes. Maggie Nelson tells jokes. Dennis Cooper tells jokes. Salman Rushdie tells jokes. Brontez Purnell tells jokes. Jonathan Franzen tells jokes. Joy Williams tells jokes. Edmund White tells jokes. Yiyun Li tells jokes. Alissa Nutting tells jokes. Sara Freeman tells jokes. Tiana Clark tells jokes. Sally Rooney tells jokes. Rebecca Curtis tells jokes. Raven Leilani tells jokes. Garielle Lutz tells jokes. Ottessa Moshfegh tells jokes. Adrian Shirk tells jokes. Anne Boyer tells jokes. Garth Greenwell tells jokes. Tao Lin tells jokes. Ocean Vuong tells jokes. Danez Smith tells jokes. James Baldwin tells jokes. Michel Houellebecq tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes. James Hannaham tells jokes.

Forever Magazine tells jokes.

“I hope somewhere down the road I will be forgotten.” Poignant, right? The utter futility, the yearning for salvation—the quote reminds me of The Keeper of Sheep. But that’s not Pessoa or Caiero or Álvaro de Campos. Nope, that’s Colin Ferguson, our long-lost amigo. The one who shot 25 people on the Long Island Rail Road. “I want to live the life I had before,” he said in the weeks after the shooting. “A quiet life unknown to the world.”

On January 19, 1994, a grand jury handed Ferguson a 93-count indictment, the charges of which included intent to harass the victims “because of their race, color or national origin.” President Bill Clinton called the shooting “a terrible human tragedy”; Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator Al D’Amato went on to cite the case as a determining factor in their support for capital punishment. Ferguson’s legal team, the famed attorney William Kunstler and co-counsel Ronald Kuby, had initially proposed an audacious strategy: citing the then-controversial defense of “Black rage,” they planned to argue that racist oppression had driven their defendant insane. A risk, no doubt, but we never got to see it in action. Ferguson fired Kunstler and Kuby and insisted that he represent himself.

Until reading Pilot Impostor, I had never even heard of this man. For a figure so cartoonish, so bizarrely, baroquely evil, I wonder why he doesn’t hold a more prominent place in the cultural landscape. We remember Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza. Why do we forget Ferguson?

It could be several reasons. Misinformation, poor communication. I don’t think we will ever know for sure. My hunch, though, is that the story was overshadowed by the OJ Simpson case, which had been airing simultaneously out in California. Quite simply, more people tuned in to watch OJ. Perhaps the racial dynamics were easier to stomach. “It was situated as spectacle from the very beginning,” argues the scholar bell hooks. “Race offered the perfect screen…It got people to move back into one-dimensional positions.”

The thing about a great joke? It cedes authority to the audience. Edgelord humor flops because it stays one-dimensional. “Black Rage” acknowledges the complexity of Ferguson’s circumstance—that yes, living as a Black man in America can very well make you want to shoot up a train—but it also recognizes that we cannot say this out loud. To put language to Ferguson’s plight, to admit that he did indeed suffer from Black rage, would be to breach the parameters of our social contract.

That’s where comedy comes in, and why Pilot Impostor succeeds. But still, the approach is something of a stretch. It takes trial and error and a great deal of patience, not to mention a lack of self-seriousness. The book works best in a collaborative setting, I think, among a trusted circle of friends and colleagues. “Shout out to the co-teachers and students who co-taught me,” writes Hannaham. “Horizontal pedagogy forever, y’all!”

The jokes in Pilot Impostor land, but they will not stoke controversy. Post-quarantine, we have entered a period of new reactionary thought. The thrust of cultural programming this fall—the Jasper Johns retrospective, the Jonathan Franzen and Maggie Nelson books, the 2021 Met Gala theme of “American independence”—gestures to a flimsy sense of nostalgia, to an awkward suggestion that we will no longer be asked to decolonize our positionalities. The moment seems to hinge on a cynical conceit: we defeated the bad orange man, hooray! Now let’s get back to business. God bless America, and God bless Joe Biden.

Part of me thinks the shift is neutral, that the culture adjusts to the transfer of power. And yes, when I look back on the Trumpian Resistance, I find this moment of ours to be vastly more honest. But just as Caiero’s notion of pure, straightforward experience is an artificial construct, I worry that the rush of patriotism is totally manufactured, meant to divert us from the tasks at hand. I think back to my childhood as a gay kid under Bush; I knew the culture was compulsory, even when I lacked the language to describe its mechanisms. I also remember laughing my ass off to Mad TV and America’s Next Top Model.

This is all to say that I need your help. Has power truly changed hands? What is the difference between “America’s Back” and “Make America Great Again”? I am not saying that Biden is equal to Trump, I believe Trump is worse. I am saying, rather, that my priorities lie elsewhere. I don’t care about American independence. I care about the work we started out on the streets.

Very well then, I contradict myself. No, I don’t think everything is about smashing shit, although smashing shit is pretty dope. But smaller forms of redress matter, too. I’m curious, for instance, if the publishing industry will make good on its promise to Black writers: do we have a parasitic relationship to their intellectual property? Will we stop haphazardly appointing them as ambassadors for peace?

“The continents breathing for countless millennia / Indifferent to all our frivolous cares,” writes Hannaham. “Blown by tectonics like so much pollinia / There’s no real frontier to which humans are heirs.” It’s trendy to claim that multiculturalism makes us stupid, that, to paraphrase Nietzsche, intelligence is dead and we have killed it. Hannaham’s most radical proposal, I think, is that this period of flux is not an aberration. We’re making real progress, he says, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Pilot Impostor lays the groundwork for these questions. I can’t wait to hear the answers. But then again, I can’t say for sure—perhaps I’m still a little too suggestible.

Quinn Roberts is a writer from New England. He is at work on a manuscript.

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