Do look down

Will Self is the author of many books, including "The Book of Dave: A Novel." His latest book, with Ralph Steadman, is "Psychogeography."

On a recent plane flight from Heathrow Airport to Glasgow, Scotland, I entered into a typical -- but, for all that, grindingly depressing -- altercation. I had been assigned the window seat, while the aisle seat was occupied by a man two decades younger and a head-and-a-half shorter than myself. I pointed this out to him and suggested that he might have some compassion for his elder, taller better, but he demurred, saying that he wanted to “get out quickly” at our destination. “What are you,” I snapped irritably, “a bloody brain surgeon?”

Of course, he wasn’t -- he was the production runner for a reality TV show, and to confirm that I was in a purgatorial transit, he and his little colleague in the middle seat spent the rest of the flight yakking nonsense while slurping kiddie drinks -- vodka and 7-Up, puh-leeze! However, in a way they did me a favor, because they forced me to contemplate: first, my weird hypocrisy -- here was I, a fearless psychogeographer, ever determined to assault the conventions of mass-transit systems, yet still falling prey to the most blinkered of herd instincts -- and then, latterly, the view from the window.

It was a night flight, but even by day viewing the British Isles from the air can be a problematic endeavor: They’re too small and, more often than not, covered in cloud, like an ancient dessert submerged in whipped cream that’s going off.


Still, I had at this point been reading Daniel Mathews and James S. Jackson’s “America From the Air” for nigh on a week -- I even had it on my scrunched-up lap -- and despite my initial wobble, I became determined to garner what I could from the darkling empyrean: the bejeweled cities of the plain -- like inversions of the Milky Way -- and the metropolises along our route: Birmingham, Manchester, then Glasgow itself (which seemed like a transparent jellyfish, sparkling with unknowable sentience).

What is it about flying? Why is it that what must, by any reasonable estimation, be the most exciting and extreme technologically mediated experience any of us is ever likely to have -- apart, that is, from radical surgery -- is hedged round with such ineffable taedium vitae? Getting into a titanium tube? Being hurled by vast jet engines six miles high, then impelled down an Aeolian slalom into another time zone? Why not squabble over the aisle seat, bury yourself in Grisham wood pulp, goggle at the pixelated manikins cavorting on the back of the seat in front of you, or plug your ears with soft rock -- do anything, in short, to avoid being fully conscious of this revolutionary, quintessentially Modernist experience: the 600-mph, hundreds-of-miles-wide vantage of a superhero -- or a god.

My hunch is that the way in which every aspect of air travel is trammeled by the ineffably dull -- tedious airport architecture, monotonous Muzak, anodyne announcements, superfluous consumer opportunities -- is the result of an unconscious collective denial. After all, if the flight crew wore winged helmets and “Ride of the Valkyries” were blasting over the PA as the plane picked up speed on the runway, and then, when the oily behemoth slipped the surly bonds of gravity, the captain cried “Wheeeee!” the latent anxieties of every passenger would be unleashed. Even if we survived the flight, we’d probably land determined never to do it again: “Flying? What a trip! Once is enough for me.” And the whole go-round of work-consume-travel-die would grind to a halt.

Set against this mass willing of ennui, “America From the Air” comes as a heaven-sent corrective: I urge you to buy it. I think it might, quite possibly, be the best book I have ever read. Taking the form of 150-odd short essays on what you can see from your airline seat, as you carom along the 13 principal flight corridors that crisscross the continental USA, the text has a curiously surrealist feel to it, as geology, ecology, history and anecdote are cut up and recombined.

Mathews and Jackson are the unlikely inheritors of the literary mantle of Brion Gysin -- or Rene Daumal -- as they juxtapose dry descriptions of metamorphic rocks, billions of years old, with juicy asides concerning the recent depredations of humanity. Transcontinental bike races, canal dredging, hog husbandry, mine tailings, the Stone Mountain statues of Confederate generals, Pogo the possum, the “Buffalo Commons,” hogbacks, cliff dwellings, volcanology, karst erosion, longshore drift, L’Enfant’s urban planning, pinyon pine reseeding -- is there any phenomenon large or small, old or young, natural or man-made, that cannot be captured within the authors’ rubric?

Forget Erasmus or Diderot: These men are the true encyclopedists of our era. Even if all our knowledge were lost to us, and humanity were left, a hobo with shopping cart, trudging through a benighted post-apocalyptic world, a single copy of “America From the Air” would prove sufficient to resurrect the entire civilization, from Paris Hilton to Paris, Texas.

The 40 most heavily traveled “flight segments” are surveyed, and each essay is accompanied by the relevant shot taken from a plane window. Numbered, bulleted points refer you from text to photograph, so that -- in theory -- you will be able to “read” some (or even all) of the landscape along your route. For the outlay of a mere 20 bucks, you can cut yourself out from the herd and revel in these impossible horizons, while beside you TV gofers slump in their brainless blinkers. There are attendant explanatory essays on geology, cloud formations and even a helpful gobbet explaining why everything looks so distorted through double-thickness Plexiglas.

But “America From the Air” is at one and the same time a portrait of a land seen though Plexiglas darkly -- and lightly: Mathews and Jackson discover a landscape that, although it may bear the scars of human exploitation, nonetheless has thousands of square miles of unspoiled terrain. From where I’m sitting, in the termite heap of London, you American frequent fliers should feel nothing but joyful expectation at the prospect of lancing skyward with a copy of this book. Unless, that is, the consummate irony of surveying such beauty while simultaneously dumping tons of CO2 on it begins to get to you.