Long, Last, Happy

Barry Hannah's inimitable style is a performance, an end masquerading as a means. Depicting events as they are recalled, not as they unfold, his stories make stunning, sometimes achronological leaps. Yet most of us are attached to the idea that sequences demonstrate progress, if only because we hope that, in time, life will. The stories in this posthumous collection, Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories, are arranged chronologically, a format that almost begs an assessment of his career. Assessment: Hannah revisited old themes in search of meaning. If this sounds banal, "meaning" is tricky in relation to Hannah, who began writing in a decade when Susan Sontag asked for literature to defy the desire for meaning, for an "erotics, not a hermeneutics, of art."


It's unlikely that Hannah took the advice of Sontag, or anyone who suggested what stories should be. But it was an era of intoxication, and we expected no less from our prose. Hannah courted clichés—in language, ideological clichés too—and deranged them. Individual words trail the smoke of previous connotations established by long usage. Accordingly, some words have lofty connotations. Others are pedestrian, trivial. The entirety of language is a scaffolding of fixed ideas, and ordinary people use words in familiar contexts, keeping usual connotations intact. But a virtuoso like Hannah put words in juxtapositions so startling they rattle the cage. A narrator, unmanned by the fact that his wife is taking flying lessons, says: "Some afternoons she'll come right over the roof of the house and turn the plane upside down. . . I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out."


He used this ferocious style in dialogue:

"My wife is a withered rag," one man blurts.

"Life here is a belligerent sow, not a prayer," responds the other.

Explosive anger turned inward, fetal. Sow next to prayer. These juxtapositions mock established meaning. By leveling distinctions between the serious and the mundane, Hannah dismantled conventional pieties.  


His stories therefore flaunt style to the point of deemphasizing what happens, which is either very little (contemplation) or a lot (spates of random hardship and calamity). In this sense, his stories parody traditional stories in which causality matters. So they've sometimes been called metafiction. In fact, they're just style-drenched. Like Gertrude Stein—and I know the comparison makes for disconcertingly strange bedfellows—Hannah turned attention toward the texture of prose, its surprises, and away from what Stein considered the cruder surprise of plot with its implied message.


Hannah once said in an interview that, when he was young, disinhibition was his muse; in later years, regret was. As the book grows longer, the stories return to themes he once touched down on as controversial essence and then, in surreal fashion, linked to comic details. In the midst of first-wave feminism, he wrote: "I'd like to stick her brain. . . I'd like to have her hair falling around my bonker." He used the words "nigger" and "Negro," and enclosed them with images so unlikely we reconsidered our collective blind spots: "We unloaded the asses and Negroes from the back end of our car and managed to get a look at the map." And sometimes he left our blind spots as he found them. A saxophone played inexpertly sounds "like the mutterings of a field nigger."


However, in one of Hannah's last stories, a narrator says: "The lynching of blacks by vigilantes is gone forever, hope to God. We have a new aristocracy and they are black men." Klansmen are "imbecilic cowards cheered on by silence from miserable governors." Imbedded in his usual incantatory narration is a Hannahesque paraphrase of Edmund Burke's line about the silence of good men, a near-apology for "staying quiet when a heinous thing is about." Hannah always wrote about absence: the fish that got away; the woman who got away; the savior who, unrecognized, got away. He eventually seemed to say that meaning, unrecognized, got away too.


His final stories are both irreverent and sincere, a juxtaposition that doesn't pack a punch because stylized juxtapositions depend on irony. He ended his career more heartfelt than not. His characters speculate about "misincarnation." They're Christ-obsessed. They wait for a sign. Narrative logic still eludes them: "There must be a string flowing through these events but she couldn't find it." They opine, desperately. "Talk, talk, talk," one says. "Much said and nothing settled. You're not even certain of the subject anymore." These moments seem to contain Hannah's own appraisal of his life's work, which broached meaning but never fastened onto it. His early stories are audacious, brilliant, dazzling, evasive. Perhaps, as he wrote himself—and may the God of "Water Liars" rest his soul—"the romance depended on . . .never completing a thought."  

July 26: On this day in 1602 "A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke" was entered in the Stationers' Register by printer James Robertes.

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