An Unexpected Match of a Book: Fernando Pessoa and Airplane Crashes

pilot impostor
by James Hannaham

In this fun and diverse collection, novelist James Hannaham (“Delicious Food,” “God Says No”) uses an unlikely pairing of contemporary life, such as the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa and the history of plane crashes. The jacket copy tells us the situation: In December 2016, on a flight from Cape Verde to Lisbon, Hannaham found himself reading Pessoa’s collected poems. The Trump presidency looked like bad weather. He had also recently fallen under the spell of a TV show called “Air Disasters” which documented famous plane crashes, hijackings and bombings. Blending these interests and concerns with his Lisbon impressions, Hannaham created “Pilot Impostor,” a hybrid of stories, essays, poetry, jokes and visual arts. While the best parts have the incredible coherence of dreams, they are not all connected.

pesos, this great, self-replicating poet is a useful premise. His alter egos or “heteronyms” are on almost every page. Their shattered aphorisms serve as breadcrumbs in a forest of forms. Written in small print and hung in unobtrusive corners, they lead the reader obliquely. Pessoa’s line “This is the kind of madness” sits alongside “Ghost Plane,” a story about a pilotless flight. Ricardo Reis’ heteronym proclaims, “Innumerable lives live in us,” at the top of the poem “My Absence”: “I am more than one. / It’s very fun for me.” Like Pessoa’s ghost poets, Hannaham’s narrator – or is he the narrator? – is difficult, mysterious, funny, diverse and somewhat ethereal.

He is also angry. The book is bubbling silently. America’s past and present racial divides give life to much of the work. “Black Rage” consists of three true crime miniatures in which Black men, motivated by revenge, hatred or insurance money, hijack flights and trains. In “Dear White Woman I Nearly Crashed My Car This Morning,” Hannaham, who is Black, uses a crosswalk showdown to suggest the challenge of charitable understanding. “Ferdinand Magellan” reshapes the Portuguese explorer’s legacy with his sarcastic, irreverent war lyrics: “Spreading the contagion of the nation/Christianity as your colony travels.”

There are also nonsense pages. “On Seeing Pessoa” repeats the name of the poet between a series of forward and backward slashes. “Felt” dissolves in its own syntactic echo chamber: “We feel what we feel. We felt what we felt. I felt. Feeling.” The iterative, algorithmic “Big Weekend” is like a machine trying to speak. The two-page untitled publication features alien hieroglyphs drawn into what might have been a 1990s WordArt template. This poignant commentary, juxtaposition of menace and absurdity is provocative Something like the irreverent, destructive spirit of Dadaism comes around occasionally.

Also a visual artist, Hannaham uses images to stabilize or compensate for texts. There are photos of plane crashes, paintings, flight path readings, patterned textures and frames he found in Lisbon, memes, film stills, abstract geometric pieces, and Google Maps selections. Taken together, they create a sense of mediation and instability. Who and where we are – historically, culturally, existentially – is always a debatable possibility for the author.

This flexibility sometimes leads the book into weak or unconvincing territory. What is refreshing on one page is confusing on the next. Different recordings can feel haphazard. Trump rubs elbows with impersonations, hallucinatory geographies, gnomic continents, error messages, and utopian gestures. Who are we in the middle of this wreckage? Hannaham seems to be asking. What is the truth? Instead of answers, the book offers a kind of anti-catharsis: “We must live life forwards and try to make sense of it backwards. So we fail both ways.”

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