'With Brad Pitt’s announcement in November that he will likely retire from acting in three years, it is worth pausing to appreciate some of his fine performances on the screen.
I remember a fall evening in 1999 when I first watched Brad Pitt’s provocative portrayal of Tyler Durden in David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club. In particular, I recall being struck by a scene about nineteen and a half minutes into the film when Brad Pitt’s fictive character first appears in concrete form, sliding past Edward Norton’s character—they are in an airport, on a moving walkway.
Fight Club, © 20th-Century Fox, 1999
Four minutes later, the film lingers in a baggage claim area, where our main character attempts to locate his lost luggage. I remember these airport scenes conveying heavy significance; and as anyone who has seen this film will note, the phenomenology of modern flight plays a key role in the psychic deterioration and fragmentation that unfolds throughout Fight Club.
Little did I know then that a few years later I would end up working at an airport, memorizing catalogs of airline code and enacting tarmac procedures. Or that, several years after that, I would write a book that tracks airport appearances in literature and culture, exploring how these spaces ‘read’ across American media forms.
Now my book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight has been published —and the topic is livelier than ever. Last week a plane had to return to the Sacramento airport because of a bird strike—and my Chapter 8, “Bird Citing,” ruminates on Sacramento airport’s vexed relationship with birdlife. David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published novel The Pale King includes a long meditation on commercial air travel; Wallace’s understanding of flight syncs up brilliantly with my discussion of an “ecology in waiting” that happens around airports (Chapter 7). On January 23, Senator Rand Paul was detained in the Nashville Airport at the security checkpoint because he refused a pat down after triggering a scanning machine’s alarm; Senator Paul might find illuminating my Chapter 5, “The Airport Screening Complex.”
Airport spaces have always been loaded with meaning, thus Chris Marker’s use of the pier at Orly in La Jetée (1962) as a charged threshold where identities can splinter. Marker’s use of the airport was later recycled by Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys in 1995—and here we find ourselves watching another of Brad Pitt’s career changing roles, as the madman Jeffrey Goines. Of course, Brad Pitt has his own airport drama in real life, with paparazzi ready to pounce on him and his children, as any Google Image Search for “Brad Pitt at the airport” will show, ad infinitum. (Perhaps I’ll write a sequel to The Textual Life of Airports and include a chapter called “Brad Pitt at the Airport.”)
All Brad Pitt references aside, it’s an exciting time for critical air travel studies. I’m proud that my book, which develops its wide-ranging analysis from the unique perspective of literary studies and cultural theory, is contributing to a burgeoning field of scholarship on the subject of flight.'
– Christopher Schaberg, author of The Textual Life of Aiports.
I have exclusively selected the introduction and first chapter of the book for our blog readers to read for free! Click on the preview button to the left to immerse yourself in the textual twilight zone of airports.
Next week I’ll be blogging pictures (with accompanying feature pieces) from the book. Everything is covered, from the banality of airport bookshops through to the airport imagery used in early adverts for the Sony Reader and the artistic merits of towering piles of lost luggage. Be prepared to see airports in a whole new cultural light.