Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Airplane Reading

After my neighbors put away their pair of insane inflatable Christmas displays—or after one of them did; the other persists and surely will until the New Year, after which point sanctions might be in order, I've been enjoying two books of essays, reading the first slowly, as I do, being Lia Purpura's Rough Likeness, which just came out from Sarabande Books. Her prose is a slow prose, a way of seeing, that knotty, highly amusing, that takes a good perambulation to digest. I'll surely write something here about it once I've finished it.

The other is a quicker, less gnarly (in a good way) read, a small book, sized for the hand and the seat back pocket, really a pair of essays, each about half the book. Checking In/Checking Out is a two-headed beast, written by Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich, ordered alphabetically (I don't know whether Checking In should happen before Checking Out, and the book is designed so that it works either way, with two covers, two ISBN codes cleverly designed into the covers so that I didn't even notice them. Even the spine could read either way. An object like a codex is hard to baffle like this, but they've done it nicely here:

Both essays are about air travel and the workings of airplanes/airports, in some ways like Alain de Botton's A Week in the Airport, at least in subject and in the meditative mode they each periodically assume. Each takes a different tack at the subject: Yakich's is the more narrative and personal, centering primarily around the passenger experience, his own fear of flying, but meandering, as essays do, to a number of other subjects including his marriage, attempts at meditation and tooling around Belgium in search of love, air crashes and air statistics, and the film Fearless. I started with Yakich since I know him better. He's the author of a recent novel and a couple kickass books of poetry and a highly amusing website which is as of this linking kind of impenetrable, not to say unentertaining.

Schaberg's is the insider view, having worked for Skywest as a "cross-utilized agent," a catch-all title for most things that need doing in airports, cleaning, baggage handling, checking people in, and so on. Schaberg's essay is setup as a collection of small anecdotes than anything else, subtitled "Seatback Pockets," "Meal Kits," "Tetris," and so on, so perhaps it's better thought of as a collection of little essays with some linkages rather than one essay. He's also the author of The Textual Life of Airports, a book of cultural criticism/literary analysis of airports as texts and the ways in which airports have registered in literature, which should give you a sense of the vision he brings to the essay. There's some memoir content in his essay/s too, though much of the real pop of it is in the descriptions of working behind the counter and in the nonpublic areas of airports, a subject fascinating to this reader at least, given the way that air travel has become mythologized in my mind in the last decade.

Much of Schaberg's essay is guided by his experience working for Skywest, and that experience is one of an initial thrill that gives way to exhaustion with repetition, all the spectacle of crawling underneath a just-landed jet squeezed out by rote. The more interesting stories become the human ones such as his odd collection of coworkers: Vicki, who slowly warms to him and starts bringing him Mountain Dew Code Reds which the two of them guzzle in secrecy, even though she is later fired for what appears to be no fault of her own; and hulking Montana cowboy Tom, who says "There are only two times when I wear a hat like that [backwards]: when I'm riding my bike, or when I'm sucking somebody off." Nice.

The essays pair in many ways, some obvious, given the subject matter, and some not (Jeff Bridges makes an appearance toward the end of both, for instance, and Yakich shows up in the end of Schaberg's essay). This is some of Yakich's best writing that I've read (though I like much of his work), and though I haven't read Schaberg's Textual Life this suggests its promise. Since it's selling for $100 at Amazon, it's meant for academic libraries rather than end-users, but don't let that dissuade you from checking out Checking In/Checking Out.

I've always been interested in airports more as liminal spaces, barely spaces at all (my first chapbook, Safety Features, was set all in airports or on airplanes), and I love to write in them. They're transitional, public but anonymous, at least for the passengers, though they do have a dearth of outlets (as, among others, Patrick Smith, who writes a column for Slate called Ask the Pilot, has noted on multiple occasions). These transitional, liminal spaces are ideal for the kind of essay thinking that de Botton does, and that Schaberg and Yakich do in this book. I'd love to have seen more of their brains on display here, see them each sprawl out a bit more (Yakich sprawls more successfully than Schaberg to my mind, though his domain is more relentlessly personal). Perhaps to suit that direction they've started a website (journal? I guess) called Airplane Reading which I'd encourage you to check out and send work to: it too is a home for some essaying (or perhaps memoiring or storying). Try flipping back and forth between each of their halves of the book and the website, and then insert some Lia Purpura for an ideal cross-training regimen. And take down your holiday decorations before you're an embarrassment to your neighbors, please. Okay, I'll give you until New Year's Day, or the 2nd if you're hungover on the 1st. I can hear the tinkling of the music still emanating from your yard.

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