Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Airships and Barry Hannah and Coincidences

Barry Hannah passed away on Monday. A weird coincidence for me, once again, as I had only just finished reading his seminal book of short stories "Airships" about a week and a half prior. This has happened to me a couple times before, as I have mentioned on this blog before (if not very clearly -- I consider those authors I've "cursed" to be J.G. Ballard, Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace -- Ballard it was "Concrete Island" and Wallace it was "Infinite Jest" and Vonnegut I'd actually read a number of his works in the span of the first several months of 2007 prior to his passing in April).

To be clear: I don't consider myself to be some harbinger of doom, reading the works of famous writers and causing their subsequent deaths. There are too many I've read who remain very much alive, even after I finished a great number of their novels, but still I will say no more of it because of a tiny ember of fear in the back of my mind that burns with: I could be wrong. Not likely, but I'm open to possibilities. Think of my attitude in the same terms you would of the lapsed-Catholic-cum-atheist who still mildly fears various sins and transgressions for the inculcated possibility of eternal damnation. Moreover, that pretty much describes my attitude in relation to superstitions just generally -- fear of supernal punishment.

The real result for me of Barry Hannah's passing is it changes a little of the critical bent I was going to approach his work with, i.e. critical in a more negative sense. I enjoyed "Airships" quite a lot actually, but there were problems I had with it that I can't simply brush under the rug of "artistic license." Maybe nows not the time, but does anyone understand his inclination towards liberal use of the "N-word"? I'm being sincere here, and if you've read "Airships" then you know near every story contains numerous appearances of a word that makes the bleeding heart, PC liberal in me cringe. So what gives? You tell me. I haven't read enough Faulkner or Walker Percy to know if this is a white southern writer thing. Please, enlighten me.

And I'm not opposed to frank or crass terms in literature, not by a long shot. I'd say, over all, I've got a rather anti-PC sensibility. I enjoyed reading a number of David Foster Wallace essays on something near this subject from "Consider the Lobster" -- which remains one of my favorite books all time for the shear and evident erudition brought to bear as he tackles issues in that non-combative, broad-minded but also subtly and subversively internecine Wallacian way of his. I found this especially effective in his last essay in which he sits-in on a local conservative broadcaster's (John Ziegler's) radio show, picking apart the many incendiary moments with really thought-provoking analysis, for example an issue of being "PC":

. . . [F]or what it's worth, John Ziegler does not appear to be racist as "racist" is generally understood. What he is is more like very, very insensitive . . . Actually, though, it is in the very passion of his objection to terms like "insensitive," "racist," and "the N-word" that his real problem lies. Like many other post-Limbaugh hosts, John Ziegler seems unable to differentiate between (1) cowardly, hypocritical acquiescence to the tyranny of Political Correctness and (2) judicious, compassionate caution about using words that cause pain to large groups of human beings, especially when there are all sorts of less upsetting words that can be used . . . If it causes you real pain to hear or see something, and I make it a point to inflict that thing on you merely because I object to your reasons for finding it painful, then there's something wrong with my sense of proportion, or my recognition of your basic humanity, or both. (322)
Now certainly there is a difference between a self-righteous, bloviating radio talk show host decrying his / her inability to use such terms as the "N-word" without people making a stink about it, and the artistic implementation of said word in literature, as Barry Hannah most assuredly had done. But call me "cowardly" and "hypocritical" and so forth with regard to PC terms, but when Hannah writes things like, "This nigger was eating a banana, hanging his leg out the front seat on the curb," I get a little discomfited.

Now especially in the preceding example from "Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa," but throughout the book of short stories, I realize a strong argument could be made that he is attempting to undermine the very notion that blacks represent any kind of servile underclass through the very indictable way they are perceived by the various white protagonists who tell his stories, but I guess in the same way someone might consider it untoward if a German were to write a contemporary-ish story of Jews being referred to with the same pejorative slurs that defined a culture of discrimination and genocide in the '30s and '40s, so too does it unnerve me when a white southern author does a comparable thing with the "N-word" -- inarguably the paramount disparagement of the Jim Crow-era (and continuing today, more or less) American south, with so much historical weight loaded to it. (And when so often its use in his writing seems superfluous, anyway.)

Furthermore, I realize that lynching was not a phenomenon unique to the south, and so my northern hands are anything but clean (especially with Chicago's less than superlative history of black-white race relations), but maybe that's even more reason for why its use makes me uneasy -- I'm no less complicit. People will say that words are just words, and to an extent I agree. But the "N-word" -- not our understanding of the history behind it -- is one I'd prefer went the way of "Coolie" or "Pickaninny" and exited the vernacular in toto.

I guess what I'm ultimately saying is I wish it hadn't bothered me so much, because all told, I really liked what I read in "Airships." It at times in my mind definitely betokened a southern George Saunders, with ribald tales and their very present moral underpinnings, such as in "Eating Wife and Friends," "Our Secret Home," "Testimony of Pilot," and "Coming Close to Donna." In the end, the above description of a humorous but even-handed and thoughtful story-teller is how I'll choose to regard the work of Barry Hannah, but if there's a singular reason I cannot place him among my favorites, it has got to be as I have stated, just something in the diction, and liberality of its employment. The effect perhaps was lost on me, as maybe I'm too sensitive. I never thought that was so.


  1. Thought this might be of interest...

  2. And it is! DFW's very important papers are going to Texas. Now I need to find a way to get there myself.