The universe in an airport

IT TAKES A tremendous amount of skill and wisdom – as well as, of course, courage – to be able to tear and resew the traditional fabric of a novel and turn it inside out, tossing convention to the ether. Will, the passenger delaying flight …, may well be unlike anything you have read before. Using the trope of an airport, Barbara Adair has constructed something elegant, subtle and profound that will grab you completely, from its dedication onwards, and not let go. When you’ve finished reading it, there are vignettes here that will continue to haunt you.

This is because the work is unequivocally and omnisciently about the flawed stuff that makes us all human, the doubts and secrets and odd little embarrassing ideas that creep into our sensibilities, when we least suspect. Adair is a total master when it comes to understanding the role of the footnote and the italicised phrase in her text. With the click of a formatting tool, she unleashes an undercurrent of commentary – some of it factual, some hilarious, some blatantly kick-ass. Asides and main text segue together with a logic that doesn’t hurt the rhythm of the story, but rather ramps it up, deliciously.

On a level, this is your ideal airport book, as it looks, with a zoom lens that often collapses into a speculum, into the lives of strangers who find themselves juxtaposed in the constructed environment which is about the simple yet complicated act of waiting. It’s a whole universe out there, beyond the confines of social convention. Akin to the potency of Stephen King, it weaves a tale of horror and madness, of sexual deviance and things that happen in broom closets and behind the door that designated neither for men or women. It features an evil dwarf who is riddled with contradiction and a murder that will make you think of a famous etching by German Expressionist Otto Dix.

Yet, this is no self-consciously art-historical foray. And it’s not Wagnerian. Rather, it’s hardly a story at all. From the Velveteen Rabbit to performance art manoeuvres, it pins together a mass of ponderables, tossing fear of Muslims and capitalist rhetoric into the mix as it evokes the transfer of focus sinisterly achieved by Gregory Hoblit in the 1998 film Fallen. It’s about how one thought births another, often in a way that you could not have anticipated.

As it glances at the criss-crossing of humanity, however, it contains a rich and central core, which dismisses all the cliched rules in novel making and delivers something about the challenge of what it is to be a human being fraught with choice in this world. But Adair does not moralise. Like Beckett her descriptions are deadpan. Like the crux of Heller’s Catch 22, Will contains descriptions of things that you cannot believe you are reading and yet her tone doesn’t flicker, or suffer the folly of sensationalist emphasis or hyperbole in its construction.

Adair is a writer’s writer, playing unabashedly and skilfully with the interstices of storytelling and allowing tales to get corrupted and swayed by their own nuances. She is also an exceptionally fine storyteller capable of inserting tales within tales within tales, casting one character’s humanity back at him from the depths of a toilet mirror, or presenting discomfiting frissons about the one-eyed lust interest of a man with a pink swastika.

The work is deep and rich, but beguilingly brief. It’s playful and rude, yet deadly earnest. It’s truly something extraordinary. And completely unmissable. And it’s a keeper.

  • Will, the Passenger Delaying Flight … by Barbara Adair is published by Modjaji Books (2020).

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