In A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul’s author-surrogate "half remember[s] what [a friend] had said about airplane travel; he had said, more or less, that the airplane had helped him to adjust to his homelessness… It was like being in two places at once… You could play off one against the other; and you had no feeling of having made a final decision, a great last journey."
The legally placeless, hermetically sealed airport is a transitional space where we’re left alone with no more than we can carry (or consume). The ideal book on air travel would perhaps be a novel bounded by a flight, in which our narrator contemplates where he’s been and where he’s going as he watches the x-ray of his carry-on, feels lonely over an overpriced whiskey on a barstool facing a half-dozen identical flatscreens, watches the world shrink and enlarge in his window, and finally steps out to hail a cab.
But this would likely have seemed too personal for the executives who invited pop philosopher Alain de Botton to spend a week as the "writer-in-residence" of Heathrow’s new Terminal 5—the British apparently being no less susceptible than Americans to the appeal of familiar phenomena described afresh in the witty, learned, definitive voice of an Oxbridge man. (This is why the New Yorker sent Anthony Lane to the Beijing Olympics, too.) We’ve all spent a week at the airport, over the years; here comes de Botton, to tell us what it means.
De Botton’s mind is engaging in its wanderings across this "intermediate zone," reflecting on family ties at Arrivals or recalling readings from Seneca at check-in. But A Week at the Airport is mostly encapsulatory, feeling at times like an overly detailed vacation itinerary. When de Botton’s not sure what to say about an item on the Heathrow checklist, he reverts to reframing the marvel of air travel and modern connectivity with too-perfectly curated arrays of proper nouns: Mohammed, a driver from Lahore, chauffeurs Chris from Silicon Valley and Mr. K from Narita; airplane meals begin as lambs on "Welsh hillsides," and are "eaten over Nigeria" having been prepared by "Ruta from Lithuania"; the currency exchange boasts reserves of "Uruguayan pesos, Turkmenistani mantas and Malaian kwachas."
There’s a political edge to these lists, a wary consideration of the movement of capital and the mobility of people, but de Botton’s far too ideal a dinner-party guest to push an agenda. He charms with drolly self-deprecating asides ("I introduced myself to Senior First Officer Mike Norcock, who had been flying for fifteen years and who greeted me with one of those wry, indulgent smiles often bestowed by professionals upon people with a more artistic calling"), and exaggeratedly elegant, erudite exegeses of the mundane. And he tells good stories. Alert to the pathos of "homelessness," he encounters narratives ideal in their proportions of archetype and singularity: the one about the Polish doctoral student of Romantic literature, the cancer-stricken Lebanese engineer and the escort agency, say, which seems a deep repository of the world’s mysteries.Mark Asch