The term airport novel is something of a misnomer: while the spy novel must by definition involve spying and the historical novel takes readers back into history, airport novels aspire to remove us from the world of the airport. Designed to distract the reader from the boredom and discomfort of the airport itself, they provide an escape hatch into inner-space through sensational stories which help to combat the nullity of the non-place in which they are read.
While traditionally the ‘airport novel’ is a place of refuge, the antithesis of the airport itself, Christopher Schaberg argues that airports are in fact highly textualized spaces. In his study The Textual Life of Airports he looks not only at the place of novels in the airport, but also at the presence of airports in the novel, as well as the profusion of directional text which attempt to shepherd passengers through the labyrinthine structure of the airport itself. Schaberg reminds us that though the airport is ‘designed to be passed through, and in rapid fashion’ airports are nonetheless ‘enmeshed with matters of place, region, and slow time’ (Schaberg 1). This duality is, according to Marc Augé’s definition, typical of the non-place: 'Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten' (Schaberg 79). This oscillating quality presents particular challenges to those whose job it is to brand the airport, a space which must have the universality and legibility of the non-space, but which must also function, as Pico Iyer argues, as ‘both a city’s business card and its handshake' (Iyer 46).
Airports: highly textualized spaces whose directional text shepherds passengers through labyrinthine routes [Image by Gabriel Li under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]
The idea that the airport can be written upon, both in the sense that its identity can be inscribed upon it and that it can in itself be a subject of literature, is demonstrated in Heathrow Airport’s ‘Writers in Residence’ scheme. In 2009, Alain de Botton was stationed at a desk in Terminal 5 and charged with the task of writing about the life he saw going on around him in the airport: ‘In terms of rationale we saw the ‘writers in residence’ concept as an opportunity to emotionally engage our customers in the airport experience’, Julia Gillam, Head of Public Relations department at Heathrow writes. Here, the airport novel functions not to allow passengers to mentally escape the airport but instead, by humanising it, to encourage them to read the airport as itself the site of uplifting stories. The purpose of sculpture and installation in the airport is not only to serve an aesthetic function; they also ‘have a part to play in way-finding’ (Edwards 160). The product of De Botton’s residency, A Week at the Airport — which was both read over the intercom at Heathrow and distributed amongst passengers — might have served a similar function. By disrupting the anonymity of the airport, it had the potential to render the space more knowable, a place where passengers were less likely to feel lost.
Speculating on his appointment, De Botton professes that it is ‘touching that in our distracted age, literature could have retained sufficient prestige to inspire a multinational enterprise’, but also concedes that the initiative is probably a canny marketing initiative:
A glossy marketing brochure, while in certain contexts a supremely effective instrument of communication, might not always convey the authenticity achievable by a single authorial voice- or, as my friend suggested with greater concision, could more easily be dismissed as ‘bullshit’ (De Botton 2).
De Botton expresses some qualms: Heathrow is a place which has done some violence to places local (with its ‘intermittent desire to pour cement over age-old villages’) and global (in encouraging passengers to ‘circumnavigate the globe on unnecessary journeys’), yet which nevertheless he will help to furnish with the ‘authenticity’ of place through his writing (De Botton 2). De Botton accepts the assignment regardless, tempted by the chance for insight into a place which 'neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilisation' (De Botton 13).
Are projects such as Heathrow's Writer in Residence revealing the rich literary background of the airport as a transformative space? [Image by Alex LA under a CC-BY-SA license]
Heathrow’s press release concerning the residency flirts with the suggestion that it was a risky undertaking on their part, granting ‘unprecedented access’ of the airport and ‘full creative control’ to the author (Press Release). While de Botton’s book is warm in its depiction of the airport, its staff and its passengers, he plays up to the idea that the author in the airport is a mischievous eccentric, peeking behind the curtain into the backstage of the airport, putting a tentative toe over its boundaries. 'While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip,’ he begins, ‘I have often longed for my plane to be delayed- so that I might be forced to spend a bit of time at the airport' (De Botton 1). Christopher Schaberg suggests that it is the codified nature of the airport which makes it a rich literary background, offering a place in which the eccentricity of character is illuminated against a background of conformity, but it is also attractive because it is a transformative space: 'story occupies the airport as an interpretive region, a place where human subjects are in an uncertain state’ (Schaberg 13). As such, the author in the airport is drawn to the crisis, the collapse, the rupture of the everyday, situations which push its characters to the brink of their own possibilities, precisely the kind of situations that the airport itself wishes to avoid.
This idea is remarked upon in Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled (2005), a novel which centres on the stranded passengers of a grounded aircraft who, left to pass the night together in the departures lounge, swap fantastical stories which meld current affairs with folklore and fairytale. ‘Was it not times like this, when life malfunctioned, when time found a leak in its pipeline and dripped out into some hidden little pool,’ the novel asks, ‘that new thoughts happened, new things began?’ (255). Like the PR Department at Heathrow, Dasgupta sees stories as a means of warming the emotional temperature of the airport, ‘a cold and intimidating space to spend a night in’ which ‘seems to demand of stranded travellers that they fill it with stories in order to make it habitable’ (Dasgupta, 2005b) (you can see Dasgupta discussing the writing of Tokyo Cancelled on YouTube). As the night deepens the nameless airport is both domesticated and defamiliarized. Sometimes it presents an anonymous face (its windows are ‘expressionless and gave little away’) while at other moments it whispers tantalising clues of its identity (‘megaphoned voices’ are heard ‘that ranted with passions too inaudible, too obscure for understanding’) (131). Dasgupta utilises the ambiguity of the airport as non/place as a correlative for the globalised world as a whole, in which local and global cultural forces flow back and forth, continually reshaping each other, producing new and unpredictable patterns.
Are airports indicative of the hyper-mobile times in which we live in the twenty-first century? [Image by Pinaco D. under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
In their book Aerotropolis (2011), John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsey predict that airports are ‘the way we’ll live next’ in our hyper-mobile times, functioning as both the centre of, and inspiration for, the cities of the future. Dasgupta seems to say that in an age in which there is a ‘growing sense that, as the world becomes more overwhelming, its reality recedes’ (‘Writing Tokyo Cancelled’) and that ‘the more the world becomes interwoven the less it seems possible to tell a single, representative story of it’ (Interview), airports are the way we’ll write next. De Botton echoes the idea that the airport is a template for what the contemporary novel strives, but sometimes fails, to be in an ‘overwhelming’ world:
My notebook grew thick with anecdotes of loss, desire and expectation, snapshots of travellers’ souls on their way to the skies- though it was hard to dismiss a worry about what a modest and static thing a book would always be next to the chaotic, living entity that was a terminal (De Botton 45).
Having enjoyed the ‘unprecedented access’ to, not only the airport but its passengers, he reflects suddenly ‘how hard it is for writers to look beyond domestic experience’ (De Botton 88). In interview, Dasgupta praises the airport as, not only providing him with a ‘narrative structure’, but also imparting the lesson that globalization is not only something ‘that happens outside in the world’ but that is also ‘interior to us.’ Whereas De Botton sadly measures the gap between his book and the site it attempts to capture, Dasgupta’s novel attempts to become a kind of airport itself, a busy loom whose shuttling movements weaves together the multicoloured threads of global narratives.
Schiphol Airport's library contains reference texts on Dutch art and culture: can such experiments humanise the spaces of airports? [Image by Jeanine Deckers under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]
While the airport needs the novel only in a very circumscribed way — where it can either distract passengers or humanise the space in ways which do not compromise confidence in the airport’s mechanisms themselves — it seems the novel might, after all, have a use for the airport. The airport offers an example of how the globalised world might be rendered through synecdoche; its scope, fluidity and dynamism offer an invigorating challenge to the ‘static’ and ‘modest’ novel form, spurring it on to innovation and originality. One of the final images of Dasgupta’s novel as the airport suddenly awakens and the ‘big black board twitched into life with cascading destinations and to-the-minute timings’ carries with it a warning for the sleepy passengers which might also stand for an address to contemporary authors as they strive to capture the polymorphous and ever-changing world at the beginning of each day: ‘the machinery of the world was starting again, it wasn’t going to wait for you any longer!’ (Dasgupta, 2005: 380).
CITATION: Bianca Leggett, "Departures: The Novel, the Non-Place and the Airport," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 4 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 September 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.4.03.
Dasgupta, Rana. ‘Narrative Planes: Interview with Sarah Crown,’ Guardian Unlimited (29 March 2005): http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/mar/29/fiction.sarahcrown [accessed 28 August 2012].
Dasgupta, Rana. (2005) Tokyo Cancelled (London: HarperCollins, 2005).
Dasgupta, Rana. (2005b) ‘Writing Tokyo Cancelled’ in Tokyo Cancelled (London: HarperCollins, 2005), pp.9-19.
De Botton, Alain. A Week at the Airport (London: Profile, 2009).
Edwards, Brian. The Modern Airport Terminal: New Approaches to Airport Architecture, 2nd edn (New York: Spon Press, 2005).
Gillam, Julia. Correspondence with author (24 August 2012).
‘Heathrow: The Book’. Press release (18 August 2009).
Iyer, Pico. The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home (London: Bloomsbury, 2000).
Kasarda, John D. and Greg Lindsey. Aerotropolis (London: Penguin, 2011).
Schaberg, Christopher. The Textual Life of Airports (London: Continuum 2012).
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