Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

It is safe to say that Kate Pullinger’s last novel, The Mistress of Nothing, took me by surprise. As a read, the book (her sixth novel but the first that I had read) seemed a conventional society-based historical novel, a cultural conflict, travel story narrated by Lady Duff Gordon’s maid who has accompanied her to Egypt where the aristocrat is seeking relief from consumption.

Enjoyable, but hardly challenging, the surprise was that it won Canada’s 2009 Governor-General’s award for fiction and was long-listed for that year’s Giller Prize — a sign that two juries saw significant literary value in a book that I would have (and did) characterize as escapist fiction. While she was born and raised in Canada, Pullinger has been based in the U.K. for some time and the novel had no Canadian content, so recognition from Canadian juries was just as surprising on that front.

All of this sparked curiosity on my part when I read descriptions of her new work, Landing Gear. The author says she was inspired by a 2001 story in The Guardian concerning a Pakistani who had stowed away in the landing gear of a British-bound jet and somehow survived the fall when the airplane approached Heathrow. The promotional stories promised that the author uses this as the framework for the exploration of tensions in a modern English family. For this potential reader, at least, that seemed a long way from Lady Duff Gordon heading to Egypt when it is still part of the Ottoman Empire.

A brief prologue alerts the reader that the novel will involve the story of Yacub, the stowaway, and the fact that he “arrives” in England by crashing on the roof of Harriet’s car just as she is approaching it with her cartload of groceries. She decides to take him home. The prologue also alerts readers to a device that Pullinger will occasionally return to throughout the story — it recounts the event in snippets of less than a page, each told from a different point of view.

The fictional version of Yacub’s fall takes place in 2012, but when the novel proper gets into motion, Pullinger moves back to 2010 to introduce Harriet and her family — Landing Gear is more than anything else their story. I was willing to give the author licence to use the highly-unlikely fall as her centrepiece; she gained credibility immediately when she used another “aeronautical event”, the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano which shut down European air travel for days, as the device to introduce her characters.

It was the day after the volcano erupted that Harriet noticed the sky. Extraordinary.

The day before, she’d been too caught up with the chaos in the radio newsroom [where she works as a presenter] as the airports had closed, one by one, north to south, like roman blinds being pulled down over the entire country: Glasgow — Edinburgh — Manchester — Birmingham — Heathrow — Gatwick. In order to read the news properly, she’d had to learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, along with a host of other Icelandic names. News bulletins had been bumped up from once an hour, to twice, to every fifteen minutes. She’d stayed late and left in a car her boss, Steve, ordered, the underground having long since stopped for the night. Once home, she found her son, Jack, asleep on the sofa, clutching his gaming handset, surrounded by pizza crusts, sticky glasses and other debris.

(Full disclosure: Pullinger may have had an advantage with this reader when she used that volcanic eruption and resulting flight shutdown to frame her story. Mrs. KfC was on a trekking vacation to Spain when that Iceland volcano erupted — both her trip there and scheduled return home were disrupted by the highly unusual shutdown of virtually all European air space so I have some personal experience with the uncertainty that it created.)

Harriet’s husband Michael (a boring actuary) is in New York on business when flights back home are halted. He chooses to head to Toronto to stay with an old flame to await the resumption of air travel — it is a decision that will lead to an event that disrupts the entire family balance for much longer than the air travel shutdown.

And then there is 14-year-old son Jack:

Jack had lived through what felt like millions of school holidays, with their distinct combination of freedom and boredom, like a weekend that never ends, a whole string of exciting Saturdays that turn into dismal Sundays. The Easter holiday was always very long — sixteen days this year, Jack had counted — and his family hadn’t gone away. Sometimes they did go away, Jack and his parents, city breaks in posh hotels with swimming pools. Why did his parents think that all he needed was a swimming pool to compensate for being dragged around endless churches, museums and art galleries? But this year Jack’s dad was in New York on business and Harriet was busy at the radio station.

Jack will be using this freedom to head to the Dukes Meadows for a party, a sort-of outdoor rave. It will prove to have two features: the silent sky (the family lives in Richmond on the Heathrow landing path where the noise of overhead planes is normally a constant feature) and the drug-related death of well-known local lad, a death in which Jack has a minor part.

And finally the author introduces Emily who “buried her father the day the planes stopped flying”. In her own way, Emily is also part of the family. As part of a personal search, she has been stalking Harriet — as a project, the stalking has also involved preparing a video documentary. Indeed, Harriet has been surreptitiously filming Harriet in the supermarket parking lot when she sees Harriet look up and directs her camera into the sky — she captures Yacub’s fall, his non-fatal landing and Harriet’s response.

Those excerpts and descriptions should be warning enough that Pullinger continues to demand licence from her readers as the novel progresses. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that she rewards this with some highly perceptive observations on what is involved in modern family life, whether or not the planes are flying.

For the most part, I would say that Pullinger succeeds in this project — the novel is both entertaining and engaging and there are a number of chuckle-inducing comic set pieces. I am not certain just how memorable it will turn out to be, but during the reading I was more than willing to go along with the author.

I’ll conclude by noting that there is an aspect to Landing Gear in which I did not take part. Pullinger is Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University and has expanded this creative project to include that latter discipline:

The digital world gives authors and publishers completely new opportunities for experimentation.

With Landing Gear, Random House created an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to get content in multiple ways. An excerpt-length section of Landing Gear is stored in a content management system and tagged to define characters, locations, events and times. Programmers can access this data and build new products with it.

To get access to the Landing Gear API or see some of the resulting projects, please visit
http://www.randomhouse.ca/LandingGearAPI

I am a reader, not a programmer, so I admit that note was a large “No Go” sign for me and I have not visited the sight. I also acknowledge that that makes me an out-of-date curmudgeon — I would be delighted to receive comments from anyone who has. :-)

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9 Responses to “Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger”

  1. Lee Monks Says:

    I’m quite happy to agree with you on the latter aspect: I’m no technophobe necessarily but as soon as I see that a book (particularly a work of fiction; and to extend the point a little, it’s also painful when ‘multimedia add-ons’ form part of a music album or DVD/BluRay release) has such an ‘innovative’ bolt on I despair slightly, and never explore such additions. I probably wrongly interpret their inclusion as a concession that there’s something missing from the main text and forget about them.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Multimedia add-ons always seem to me to miss the power of books as a form, or for that matter cinema as a form when they’re used with films. Occasionally you see some company or other touting how their book is an interactive experience and this is the new way forward, which ignores the fact that (a) books are inherently interactive anyway and (b) interactive fiction has been around since the text based computer games and choose-your-own adventure books of the 1980s. I actually like those CYOA books and the text-based games, but they ain’t literature.

    This, hm, it just feels like a bit too much. Too much use of the central airplane motif. The guy falling out of the sky, the volcano, the way each keeps cropping up, add in then a death and it just seems a bit too incident packed for something that’s not crime or a thriller (i.e. that’s not a primarily plot driven novel).

    • Lee Monks Says:

      Max: your comment gets to the basic nub of my bugbear: books are just as interactive as I need or want. There’s nothing I can glean or particularly enjoy about a digression or transmigrated extrapolation, as neat as it may well be. I’d much rather a mention in passing was made of a linked webpage or whatever, rather than an insinuation that I am slightly impoverished or out of the loop should I abstain from a snazzy corollary.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee, Max: I will confess that I am anal retentive enough about books that I have never underlined, made even pencilled notes in the margin or folded over the corner of a page. So the idea of heading off to a website somewhere for an “interactive” experience holds nothing but negative appeal. I’m quite content for my physical “interaction” to be limited to turning the pages — the mental interaction of what the reading produces in my head is what I am interested in.

    Having said that, I’m guessing there is a generation or two now for whom “interacting” is the norm and more power to them. And given that Pullinger is closer to my age than theirs, I salute her for bridging the gap.

    The plot may have pushed things a bit, but I was quite willing to go along. Mrs. KfC made a useful observation after she read the review. We were living in Pittsburgh when 9/11 occurred — the fourth flight probably went right over our home. We both remember the stunning impact of the “aerial silence” for the next few days when flights were grounded. Sometimes the most memorable personal impact of momentous events comes from a relatively minor side effect — that’s the conceit that the author plays with here, to relatively good effect for me.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      “I’m quite content for my physical “interaction” to be limited to turning the pages — the mental interaction of what the reading produces in my head is what I am interested in.”

      Exactly that point, Kevin.

      I take your point, as well, about a new generation more versed in such tomfoolery but I’m sure, then, that something may well be compromised or structurally weakened by divvying up the experience on offer, rather than simply saying: this is it, you low attention span heathens! A book! Tried and tested over centuries!

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Well, as I said, I’m not sure this is new. I grew up on interactive fiction back in the 1980s, it’s over a generation old. It just dropped out of use as it never really took off, so occasionally someone does it again thinking they’ve discovered something new when they haven’t.

        When the whole interactive fiction thing kicked off some decades ago there were a mix of products, some closer to books/films and some closer to games – ie some with more interaction than others.

        Those that hewed closest to existing media did worst, because what you actually got was a book or film that lacked a strong central narrative. Those that focused on being games did better, and are still with us as games.

        As Lee says, by divvying up the experience you weaken it. Media can of course learn from each other – Berlin Alexanderplatz is heavily influenced for example by the then current film montage experiments, but it remains a book.

        So, games can learn from movies, movies from books, and so on and vice versa, but if you try to make a book that is also a game the risk is making something that’s neither a very good book nor a very good game, which is precisely how most of the interactive fiction stuff back in the 80s and 90s did end up.

        I genuinely don’t think this is a generational issue. New generations still enjoy strong narrative and to be immersed in a story. Tacked on interactivity works against those things. If you want interaction you build it in fundamentally, from the ground up, which takes you down the game rather than novel route.

        • Lee Monks Says:

          An awful lot of exceedingly good stuff out there is borne out of inspiration from an alternative medium: but, as you say, it needn’t have anything to do with the format that inspired it in conception.

          The whole mishmash of formats is just doomed, I’m sure of it. I knew that as long ago as 1982 when Shakin’ Stevens implored me to ‘fast forward to the end of the tape where you’ll find my game for the ZX Spectrum 4 8 K (nobody told him not to seperate the digits) computer…’ I think I loaded it out of novelty, played it once (atrocious ripoff of PacMan) and forgot about it.

          On the generation issue: of course but now you can have an app tie-in downloaded in seconds. There’s much more ease of combination across formats. Not that that makes any of it any less diluted and gimmicky.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I did visit the link and will be the first to admit that I lack the skills to join the “interactive” feature even if I wanted to. Let’s face it — I have enough trouble using the three or four “easy code” features of WordPress that I do use on the blog.

        I agree with Max that interactive-type devices have been around (almost universally unsuccessfully) for a while, but that quick site visit suggests that at least in this case the activity has become much more complex. I struggle to understand what value it might add.

        As for Landing Gear, I approached it as a book in the traditional sense, not a project (although I was aware of the project feature). For me, it worked quite successfully as a traditional book.

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