Departures: The Novel, the Non-Place and the Airport

Bianca Leggett


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,


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Bianca Leggett is a PhD Candidate in the School of English & Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is currently co-convening the symposium Twenty-First Century British Fiction[/author_info] [/author]



Works Cited:

Dasgupta, Rana. ‘Narrative Planes: Interview with Sarah Crown,’ Guardian Unlimited (29 March 2005): [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).



Please feel free to comment on this article.

16 Replies to “Departures: The Novel, the Non-Place and the Airport”

  1. Very interesting article Bianca, I really enjoyed reading it. I was intrigued by your comment that airports can be perceived as the 'escape hatch into inner-space' as it reminded me of J.G. Ballard's prose poem 'What I Believe', which is littered with airport references. Here's a few relevant quotes from the poem:
    "I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports."
    "I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs."
    "I believe in maps, diagrams, codes, chess-games, puzzles, airline timetables, airport indicator signs."
    Full text is available here: 
    Ballard's fascination with airports, car parks, empty swimming pools etc. seems to be precise due to their status as 'non-places' that function – to use another Ballardian phrase – as 'zones of transit' outside of conventional time systems. Their beauty, for Ballard, is their liminality as they present this momentary in-between spaces that offers the opportunity for the emergence of an alternative temporal path.
    I haven't read De Botton's book, but does he look at airports in this way at all?

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Chris, I've been dying to discuss Ballard and airports as it so happens!
      Yes, I was originally planning to kick off the article by talking about Ballard and his love affair with Heathrow but there was just too much to say!  I hadn't come across 'What I Believe' but he writes in this vein in an article for The Observer ('Going somewhere?' The Observer 14/9/97).  Like the authors of Aerotropolis, he talks about the airport as the fulfilment of some kind of vorticist vision of the future, positioning it against the scourge of 'pebble-dash', 'half-timbered' buildings and 'temples to tweeness' which he considers to be the scourge of Britain.
      There is actually an echo of Ballard in De Botton now you come to mention it (unlikely bedfellows on the whole, and yet…!) along the lines of liminality and a fascination with escaping the everyday.  They each employ the inevitable metaphor of the pleasures of handing over your baggage, so to speak.  De Botton writes ‘In the end, there was something irremediably melancholic about the business of being reunited with one’s luggage.  After hours in the air free of encumbrance, spurred to formulate hopeful plans for the future by the views of coasts and forests below, passengers were reminded, on standing at the carousel, of all that was material and burdensome in existence’ (p.142).  Ballard writes, 'We are no longer citizens with civic obligations but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our lightness of baggage mandated by the system.'   
      I think in some ways that however compelling Ballard's take on the airport is, it's too obviously the projection of a fantasy rather than a reading of the rich and contradictory possibilities of the space.  Some of his ideas are pretty perverse, for example, he writes 'Air travel may well be the most important civic duty that we discharge today, erasing class and national distinctions and subsuming them within the unitary global culture of the departure lounge'.  Ballard's airport is a place with no passports, immigration controls, first class lounges or poorly paid airport workers…  That last one is what strikes me, how can someone who lived in Shepperton write about an airport without mentioning staff?  Anyway, there's enough about Ballard and airports for a whole new article, maybe that's where to head next! 

      1. Many thanks for your response Bianca and I will have a read of the Ballard essay you mention. I guess Ballard's fantastical description of the airport devoid of the clear political and class issues is a consequence of his typically surrealist style. At a purely visual and spatial level the airport is a fantastical place full of peculiar juxtapositions – we can be buying a pack of chewing gum in WH Smith whilst looking out the window at a gigantic A380 manoeuvring for take-off. 
        Many thanks again and I look forward to continuing our conversation at the Westminster research seminar!!

  2. Excellent piece, Bianca; very enjoyable.

    I'm afraid my comment is slightly banal, but just sprang to mind while reading. I don't know whether you were at the Tom McCarthy conference last year (I suspect you were), but the final reading he gave from his forthcoming work was a scene set in an airport, where the thoroughly dislikable protagonist watches an eco-disaster newsflash. You, or others, might be able to remember more of it than I can, but I certainly got the impression that this would be a good case study for the transcendence of space and the fundamental interconnectedness (also at an ethical level) that you hint at here.

    1. Hi Martin!  Thanks for this, certainly not banal, what a lead!  No I didn't make it to the Tom McCarthy conference.  I'm particularly interested to find novels which engage with the ethical/ ecological angle of airports since that seems on the whole to be less covered than meditations on space/ non-space and identity.  And of course Remainder ends in mid-air doesn't it?  Belated spoiler alert for those who haven't read it, apologies!  Interesting… 

  3. Thanks for a really interesting piece.  I haven't read "Tokyo Cancelled" but I think I should.  I'm interested that you describe it as a novel although by the sound of it, it seems to resemble classical and medieval texts such as the "Satyricon" or "The Decameron", although maybe "The Panchatantra" would be a more immediate reference-point for the author.  Caroline Rooney, in a chapter for a forthcoming book on the postcolonial short story that I have co-edited, refers to two Egyptian texts as 'maqamas' – 'assemblies'. It sounds like a similar democratic principle might be at work in "Tokyo Cancelled". 

    1. You should definitely read Tokyo Cancelled, I can't recommend it highly enough!  Yes you're quite right to draw comparisons to The Decameron etc. (The Canterbury Tales is often mentioned as a possible model too).  I don't know much about The Panchatantra but it sounds like a helpful comparison, I think I'll look into it further.  Your forthcoming book sounds really interesting, what is it's title and when can I get hold of it?  Tokyo Cancelled certainly stretches the novel form, but not more than something like Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters which is over twenty years old now, and is mostly treated as a novel.  I think its productive to leave the question open though, perhaps thinking of the stories as 'assemblies' would open up different critical questions?  Looking forward to knowing more from your book!

      1. Thanks for this really interesting piece!
        Reading the article and the  comments, I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin's short story collection Changing Planes that uses the non-space of the airport as a kind of blank generative place that allows access to new worlds, both in fictional terms and literally. In that way she draws a comparison between  the empty page, or the book itself, and the airport and, as you argue Dasgupta does, she grants the airport and the book a similar function as places of access. I find it interesting that she does this while insisting on the banality of airports… I wonder what it says about fiction, or perhaps the process of writing fiction? 

        1. Thanks Rowena!  Yes I think you've put that brilliantly, the paradox as both sterile and yet teeming with stories isn't so much paradoxical as suggestive that a 'blank generative space' as you say is, like the blank page, where stories happen.  Maybe the affinity of the novel with the airport which Le Guin suggests is a suggestion of a similar 'blank generative' quality in the novel form itself.  This insistence that the airport is banal is common, and yet (in cinematic cliche at least) they are often imagined to be places of high emotion which I suppose is a similar phenomenon: the codified and banal nature of the airport, in fictive terms, seems to invite excess, emotion, disruption… Or sometimes the banality of the airport is itself aestheticized!  Or at least its much more aesthetic when its George Clooney having a banal time in the airport in Up in the Air, but that is neither here not there…  Looking forward to reading Le Guin! 

  4. David Pascoe's book is excellent!  Fantastically wide-ranging and dense in its literary examples.  I wonder how much its focus might have changed if it had been written in 2002 rather than 2001?  Maybe not much- I'm interested in the way that the seeds of paranoia which we associate with 9/11 seem to be present much earlier, I might go back to Pascoe and see what he has to say on the subject.  Thanks for the comment!

    This is a wonderful essay, Bianca.  I'm currently planning a course called "Critical Air Studies," which will take up several of the texts you discuss here.  And I was very happy to be introduced to Tokyo Cancelled, which I did not know about previously.
    Lately I've been thinking a lot about the role of new media technologies in the realm of flight (especially airport Wi-Fi & in-flight Wi-Fi), and I wonder how the communications and networking promises of digital devices pose a unique (if still largely unrealized) challenge to air travel: could it be that the perfect airport is not an airport at all, but rather is a super duper smart phone in your pocket?  Do our personal devices imagine and project miniaturized airports, where we manage millions of flights (literal and figurative) and connections from our terminal bodies?  (Speaking of Ballard, this sort of sounds like a revision of his speculations in Crash, where automobiles mediated human bodies, in more ways than the ‘normal’ car ride…and all in eerie proximity to the airport, of course.)  
    I know it seems outlandish to suggest that new media devices could outmode human air travel; realistically, these two modalities will probably coexist and overlap for some time.  But I noticed on my brand new MacBook Air that it no longer comes equipped with an "AirPort"—it's now just called "Wi-Fi."  The metaphor of the airport seems to have become obsolete for the Mac, and I don't think it's a mere coincidence.  
    On another note, I recently finished Peter Adey's very smart book Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects, and I think you would find it very interesting and useful for your research, if you haven't already checked it out.  

    1. I'm thrilled to have a comment from you Christopher!  Your book fired off so many ideas for me, thank you so much for your thoughtful response.
      It's really interesting to hear what you're working on now.  Your Critical Air Studies course sounds great, pity flights aren't so cheap and environementally friendly I can't just pop over the pond and listen in on a few classes.  Although I suppose if you were podcasting it I could in some sense, which as you say, suggests some of the ways that digital culture might be challenging air travel.  I'm quite interested in the idea of the post-tourist too- the tourist who has abandoned notions of tourism as a quest for authenticity and instead as a kind of hyperreal game, or even prefers to receive the world through a screen- which is not a new idea (first proposed by Maxine Feifer in 1985, or you could argue as far back as Huysmans À rebours in 1884) but perhaps an increasingly relevent one.  Its interesting to counterpoint the rise of digital 'travel' amongst the world's techno-elite against its opposite, the very physically dangerous embodied journeys made by refugees and migrants.  I read this truly surreal and horrific story in the newspaper the other day Hari Kunzru mentions a similar story in Transmission, which contrasts subaltern travellers with 'frequent flyer' executives, a book that's very thoughtful on the subject of contemporary mobility (and there are a few airports too!).  Definitely check out Tokyo Cancelled if you can, it's a fantastic book.
      I haven't come across Peter Adey's book yet, but this comments wall has made me more convinced than ever that this topic is something I want to expand on so he's going on the reading list!
      Thanks again for your comments, I'd love to hear how your course goes!

  6. Dear Bianca,
    I really enjoyed this short piece, and would be very interested in a longer, more theoretically dense treatment of the subject. I'm in film and visual studies and hope to begin a PhD career soon; my interest is in screens and the spaces of screening. Like screens, which exist through self-negation (rare is the work of projection that reminds observers of the physicality of the screen), it seems airports, too, exist as a constant referent, a Peircean sign, always already in movement toward something else. Have you thought of a possible nexus between Henri Lefebvre's work on space and spatiality and airports?

  7. Thanks for this essay, and for adding some books to my to-be-read list. If you've never seen it, you might look at Roy Kesey's story "Wait," included in the Best American Short Stories anthology a few years ago. It follows a group of passengers stuck in an airport lounge, so is perhaps similar to Tokyo Cancelled, which I hadn't heard of before. You can read the opening here, and the whole thing if you have access to the Jstor database (and I'd be glad to share a PDF if you don't have access).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.