A Review of James Hannaham’s Pilot Impostor

The self: our primordial occupation and ongoing obsession, especially now in this, the age of selfies and self-aggrandizing Twitter jokes, of memoirs and autofiction and fiction that is probably actually autofiction, of identity and so identity politics. Amidst the hurtling uncertainty of existence, the self promises at least one sure and immovable thing, an Archimedean point upon which the rest of the world can be built. 

Maybe that’s why I’m succumbing to the self now, grounding this review which cannot be objective in the subjectivity of first person, this essay not just about James Hannaham’s Pilot Impostor but about the person who read and relates it to you now, about me, who first read the book in a hospital room waiting to be induced into labor. First, the thickly philosophical epigraph from theorist Jan Westerhoff who poses the book’s central metaphor as a thought experiment: 

Consider the self as a pilot of a flight simulator, and then ask the self where it ends and the rest of the world begins. What is real and what is not. Ask this until you discover it’s all indistinguishable, one big heaping mess. Fly the plane anyway. 

Standing on the brink of life as I was, this questioning eroded whatever winnowing self-assuredness I had: in that moment the baby and I, we, were connected, arguably one; soon we would be two—who would I be then? 

I turned the page: an image of a plane on fire and plummeting out of the sky. An extraordinary turn of events; whatever hope I’d carried into the flight quickly turned to despair. But with gettyimages stamped on the picture, it was also rather ordinary: a simple screen cap, a copy and paste. Disaster made mundane.

I turned the page again: the book’s first vignette, “Knifemagnet,” Hannaham sitting in a Lisbon café at 2 a.m., sportively wondering if it’s more today or tomorrow. Awaiting his food, he turns his attention to the cutlery: the knife, the fork, the knife which he discovers attracts the fork. Which is it then: is the knife a knife or a magnet? “Which thing of the thing did I see?” It’s an inane question but one with prodding roots that, when pursued, implicates his sense of self: “I’ve seen myself as many things when someone else saw only one.” He: Black, queer, male, artist, writer, professor, husband, a New Yorker abroad, etc. Or at least those are possible descriptions of him, specifically mine. I wonder how another might describe me: white, cis, woman, writer, housewife, mother, New Mexican, etc. Depending on the point of view, it’s all too easy to imagine one title superseding the rest. 

“What we see of ourself is not us,” Hannaham muses.

“What we see of things is ourselves,” he concludes. 

In Hannaham’s conception the self is so interdependent that when he takes on Westerhoff’s thought experiment and puts on his pilot’s wings, he doesn’t imagine being isolated in a simulation but on a commercial jet filled with “so many souls.” He applies the writer’s dictum—to pursue the unknown––to the flight; readily, he admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing. 

Do you trust him, then, to carry your soul through the sky as through this book? To arrive at the other end with your sense of self intact? Or are you willing to risk it all––to lose the self, which is, in a way, to die––in order to arrive at the unknown? 

These were the questions I was asking myself in the hospital room, ruminating on the book’s beginning while my contractions began and then intensified, the nurse bringing wet towels and telling me to “just let go.” I tried, but I didn’t know how. Instead, I said: “I’m dying.” And in a way, I was. Perhaps death is what it takes for a baby, a self, to be born. Or at least what it took for my baby’s head to crown. 

I wonder why I waited until that moment to wonder about what kind of world I was bringing the baby into, what kind of mother I would be, how I would explain to the baby their place in the scheme of things. The last cogent thoughts I remember.

And then, a few days later, when we left the white-walled hospital for the big-bad world, I remember being in the car and on the way home, describing to the baby the world outside the window: trees, birds, gas station, mountain. But it seemed wrong somehow, that splicing up of what the baby sensed––the imperceptible whole. I ought to have described the whirring by. I worried I’d already made a fatal mistake. I thought of my husband driving the car. And then of the picture of the plane falling out of the sky. Pilot error. The stakes of the drive home suddenly so much higher.

For the next month, I’m almost always safely back at home, reading Pilot Impostor in one hand while nursing the child in the other, considering personhood alongside Hannaham who is considering personhood alongside the writer Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa considered the self by creating and then assuming more than seventy-five alter egos or “heteronyms,” for example Alberto Caeiro the stoic shepherd, Álvaro de Campos the wrathful engineer, or Ricardo Reis the doctor who outlived his author. Pessoa himself was a bit of an invention, Pessoa not a given name but a chosen one meaning “person.”

Given that Pilot Impostor’s vignettes are annotated with the Pessovian pieces that inspired them, I’m tempted to imagine Pessoa sitting across from Hannaham at that Lisbon café, to describe the two of them as in conversation. But importantly, they’re not. Writing from nineteenth-century Portugal, Pessoa’s conception of self would not apply to Hannaham. And so, writing from twenty-first-century New York, Hannaham deftly refuses to engage on Pessoa’s terms.

Here is Hannaham’s “Food Chain” in its entirety:

Science keeps discovering that subjects never before thought to have significant consciousness or the ability to think actually do. In no particular order: crows, sunflowers, Black people. Researchers presume that their subjects cannot know, experience, interpret the world, or understand that they will someday die. This assumption pays the human salary, allowing us to eat, torture, and profit from any entity we deem less conscious than ourselves. 

The Portuguese began the Atlantic slave trade in the 1500s and, somewhere along the way, began to justify the practice with an ethnocentric bias against sub-Saharan Africans already available to anyone. 

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

It’s hard to tell if that final line is meant to be a joke. I laughed, but not out loud, a little too complicit, perhaps. Like Pessoa, I’m the kind of person who usually gets to assume selfhood and not a person who bears the burden of being assumed. In other words, as Hannaham would call it, “a deafening solipsism.” He imagines Pessoa holding a conch shell up to his ear and mistaking it for the actual ocean. 

It’s a good explanation of solipsism as there is, arguably the mechanism by which the Portuguese once enacted their breed of colonialism now rampant across the world that they were first to encircle and conquer. Hannaham pauses to consider how a nation of men came to justify claiming foreign lands and peoples as their own? Solipsism: imagining the other as the domain of the self.

“Great is the power to ignore another,” Hannaham writes. Yes. Great. Great but ordinary. The stuff of the immemorial philosophical dialectic between the master and the enslaved. And while it might be tempting to distance ourselves from such antiquated systems, to think our society more humane, we might better judge our progress by asking not about the oppressions that do or do not exist, but if the solipsistic mechanisms are still at play. “The master believes himself superior to his slaves. He desires comfort,” Hannaham writes. Such an ordinary wish. 

And so I arrive at a familiar crossroads: to despair or to hope? If this were a conversation employing Pessovian terms, I would choose the latter, every time. But it’s not: each of Hannaham’s vignettes taking Pessoa’s self-indulgences and folding them into paper planes, launching them into the air to see if they will fly. The genreless book is not an assumption of various others but of various forms, of poems and pictures and essays and stories and scripts and memes, written in first person and second and third. It’s a difference in form so severe as to become a difference in kind, not an appropriative art but a genuinely creative one, the kind that turns one question into a succession of questions. 

For example: is salad sentient? Hannaham answers with a picture of red, the number seven, an image of a brain scan, a Portuguese tile, a grid of squares, and then, a few pages later, another question: “What separates seeing and thinking? Anything?” A few sections later he’ll answer: “Klavbjavkrbroavl;a ieapvlcnb dkvncnlvfenao jdkb rp va dnag dvfl; a giob inb clav rb- fnbnrkl anbr bla oe b02i nb 0r9br b-49f bh als cp[a[b en0e9bhj d-w-ib dvkdln…” Gibberish made eloquent, reason made mute, play profound. Hannaham is in new terrain, not to be confused with being at the frontier.

But sometimes the paper planes crash, as in “Dear White Woman I Nearly Hit With My Car This Morning.” She, a pedestrian assuming herself ever-visible and so stepping into the crosswalk without the right of way. He, assuming she wouldn’t be there, narrowly missing her, prompting her shaking fist. First Hannaham blames the almost-accident on privilege, white and pedestrial, both of which assume to have the right of way. And then he blames his blind spot. And then the inevitabilities of coexisting and contradicting selves. “Our encounter made me think of many other misunderstandings, Dear White Woman, both personal and historical, and of how the assumptions we make based on our own perceptions and needs can be just as correct as other people’s, and yet still cause confusion, injury, and death.” 

Again he arrives at death, the cars and planes crashing making clear the dangers of subjective selves, exposing the stakes of interior worlds not just as philosophical fodder, but as rife with real world consequences. Consider “Stop” in which a white police officer pulls over a Black man and orders the window rolled down so he can recite poetry through the window: “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” 

The section is in response to a poem by heteronym Ricardo Reis that says: “the only freedom the gods grant us / is this: to submit.” Reis, the doctor, the heteronym who outlived Pessoa, the one who would see the once globally dominant Portuguese empire crumble into the pebbled populace of democracy. He prompts the question: submit to whom? Once to the King now to the everyman. Once to the conquistador now to the police officer wielding poetry as a weapon. To the “violence of words.” 

Trees, birds, gas station, mountain, two days old and language already dividing the world. How do I live with myself?

In “Him Ricardo” Hannaham considers the case of the pedophile. First “he thought of himself as nothing. When he felt he wanted to do horrible things, he split himself in two.” Sympathetically, Hannaham’s page divides into columns. How does he live with himself? He hides from himself what he’s done. 

My baby is crying now, while I’m trying to write: a crisis of contradicting selves. The more the baby becomes aware of the world, the more troubled the baby’s cry becomes. I’m troubled, too. Tired. Frustrated. On deadline. I start to cry. 

“So what if, after all this, I came to my studio and just wept? If I sat alone and cried for everything that has passed and everything that has not, for those who should have survived and those who should not have.” He continues with something like a list of things to weep for. He ends with repentance: “Let solitary, private weeping be my art practice. Let no one commodify it. Let no one see it. Let no one know of it. Please, creatures of the future, if you have language, please know that I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” 

It’s a fitting crescendo for the book, an ironic and self-betraying sort of non-conclusion that finds company in the Portuguese mood of saudade, what a person or a nation feels when they have hurt so many, when they have been hurt in return, “robbing us of the memory that allows us to take pleasure or pain, or pleasurable pain, in reliving the past.” Despair laced with hope and not the other way around. The only way for Pilot Impostor to end: 

“Was it worth it. One might ask mankind:

How does the soul grow smaller than the mind? 

Followed by the image of a plane with its nose tilting up, rising further and further up into the sky…


Sarah Haas

Sarah Haas is a writer living off-grid in the mountains of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Longreads, and The Rumpus, among others. She is represented by Mina Hamedi at Janklow & Nesbit.

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