Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"It Aint Arkansas or No Real Place": Authenticity and Textuality in Barry Hannah's Post-South

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"It Aint Arkansas or No Real Place": Authenticity and Textuality in Barry Hannah's Post-South

Article excerpt

BARRY HANNAH'S SHORT STORY "EVENING OF THE YARP: A REPORT BY Roonswent Dover," from Bats Out of Hell (1993), lends itself to analysis in the context of current debates about the viability of regional studies in a postmodern culture that would appear to question the very concept of the region as a useful means to understand contemporary fiction. In proposing that Hannah's story is quintessentially southern even while it problematizes the perniciously mediated ways in which the South is understood, I argue that the story offers a creative conceptual response to the impasse that a simple opposition between the regional and the postmodern appears to posit. Hannah's story is a subtle metafictional inquiry into the complex operation of various forms of mediation, but one that salvages an important vestigial idea of the real which is compelling and persuasive, even while it is mired in a profound preoccupation with the issue of the phony image. In this way the story is an ingenious proposal for having it both ways, acknowledging the South as image, while discovering something authentic in images.

The particular hermeneutical challenges of Hannah's fiction historicize it specifically in its late twentieth-century moment, when critics such as Brian McHale and Linda Hutcheon were disputing the nature of mimetic historical representation and emphasizing the newly "textual" nature of reality, having inherited Fredric Jameson's theoretical legacy. Hillel Schwartz's The Culture of the Copy, for example, interrogates the problems of authenticity, identity, and originality in a contemporary culture of simulacra. Meanwhile, others such as Roland Robertson, Robert Brinkmeyer, Edward Ayers, and Arjun Appadurai were emphasizing the concomitant infirmity of a foundational sense of place in a newly globalized culture of shifting geographical boundaries, a culture in which the very idea of regional authenticity was merely a simulated one.

Hutcheon's Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox demonstrates how the metafictional genre arose as a cultural response to this sense of textual contingency in which "All reality becomes [narrative,] a 'form of saying"' (xiv). Patricia Waugh describes the genre's central premise, that the inherent condition of language renders it fundamentally incapable of "passively reflect[ing] a coherent, meaningful and objective' world" (3). In another study, Hutcheon emphasizes the consequent fraudulence of any fiction which claims to "aspire to tell the truth' or "associate 'this truth with claims to empirical validation "' arguing instead that a contemporary sense of textual authenticity resides only m works which can be seen to "contest the ground of any claim to such (Poetics 123). Consequently, fiction that "most freely acknowledges its fictionality" may be the "most authentic and honest" kind (Narcissistic Narrative 49). This is the paradox of metafiction which remains inevitably, a referential genre which claims to tell stories about the world-simultaneously as its texts self-consciously "subvert[] [their] own referential illusion," as Mark Currie puts it (5). This tension is at the heart of Hannah's writing and produces some remarkable conceptual subtleties regarding "region" and "real."

Hannah's stories demand our interrogation of the concepts of the real the surreal, and the hyper-real, in which the distinctly Baudrillardian possibility manifests that conceptions of the real are (simply) a function of compelling aesthetic or textual practices. Here, our very idea of reality is a fictional, semantic, or linguistic one, which can only gesture toward some idea of the real but without representing it. After the 1960s especially, language was widely believed to have lost its incorporation of a simpler referential function to describe reality, introducing a radically new sense of the politics of representation in which questions of authenticity become principally textual ones. …

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