Earlier this week I had a go at the first half of Alain de Botton's new book A Week at the Airport, where he reports on a week spent at Heathrow's Terminal 5 as the airport's writer-in-residence. I finished it off this afternoon, largely over a bowl of curry ga at one of Dwell's local Vietnamese haunts, and here's the rest of my review.
The second half of A Week at the Airport, comprised of the chapters "Airside" and "Arrivals," fare better than the early throat-clearing of the first section. Here de Botton hews closer to the structure itself, permitting his flights of interpretive fancy (mostly) to rise no higher than the control tower. As he moves through the security line he muses on the strange relationship between suspicion and guilt, noting that:
"Safe passage through security did have one advantage, at least for those plagued (like the author) by a vague sense of their own culpability. A noiseless, unchecked progress through the detectors allowed one to advance into the rest of the terminal with a feeling akin to that one may experience on leaving church after confession or synagogue on the Day of Atonement, momentarily absolved and relieved of some of the burden of one's sins."
Once through the moral and baggage reckoning, de Botton is loose in a festival of shops and restaurants. Despite Heathrow's primary offerings (commerce and waiting) the author is perpetually on the lookout for a bit of human connection. One wonders if he, though surrounded by the churning throng that passes through the airport each day, isn't getting a bit lonely. He chats up pilots, bristles at the amenities awaiting the wealthy in the Concorde Room (a first-class lounge), and vainly searches the airport bookshop for any of his own work. It's funny, breezy stuff, and I'll confess that I prefer de Botton when he gets a bit of a tailwind behind him. Unfortunately even a bit of momentum doesn't keep de Botton out of mostly superficial territory.
This far in, it's clear that de Botton is a writer of agile intellect and deep reading, and its frustrating that he gets no further than a fluent flit through Terminal 5. There's little meat on the bone in A Week at the Airport, and for all de Botton's energy, wit, and smarts, the product of his choice post as the all-access writer-in-residence at Heathrow is ultimately anemic.
This is in starkest relief when he meets the head of British Airways, Willie Walsh. After describing the company's myriad woes, PR difficulties, and the desire on part of readers to get some kind of penetrating glimpse at a man of power, our guide balks. Instead of posing any revealing questions we instead get de Botton shoulder-to-shoulder with Walsh marveling at a massive model of an as-yet-built jumbo jet.
Suffused with a newfound sense of buddyhood he even asks Walsh if he might become some kind of "writer-in-flight, in order that [he] might constantly circumnavigate the earth composing, among other things, sincere dedications to my patron, impressionistic essays describing the ochre colours of the western Australian desert as seen from the flight deck, and vignettes recounting the balletic routines of the stewards in the galley."
Walsh comically rebuffs him, and though de Botton plays the scene for a gentle chuckle, his inability to really embed, and ultimately illuminate much about his week at the airport keeps the book from amounting to much. Which is not to say that his book is poor--it's not--merely that it offers little reward much past the moment of reading. Just the right kind of book for an airplane. Or an airport.