Place (and Time) Regained

We know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.

—W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Like the protagonist of a morality play, an everyman, a fallen Icarus, a skewed Gatsby, or an inexplicable murderer, Packer gradually sheds riches as well as his bodyguards, those social and material wrappings now deemed irrelevant to his fate. Alone with his allegorical driver, Ibrahim, Packer crosses into the West Side. As he does so, he notices a totally different landscape: stray dogs, garbage cans of battered metal, garbage in open boxes, the ramparts above the train tracks, garages and body shops, steel shutters marked with graffiti in Spanish and Arabic. It is the horizontal city, the city of Daedalus that spreads under the verticality of Icarus. That is where his destination, the barbershop, is located, facing a row of old brick tenements. Packer stands on the sidewalk, singling out one of the grim buildings. Space is no longer distance; it intersects with time, as both categories become part of the same axis. There are memories intertwined with the West Side; stories attached to it; old spatial practices that give shape to that particular location and situate it on a personal map. The historical dimension that was superseded as a vestige of the past throughout the ride comes to life. History becomes inextricably linked to space, part of that double axis Massey dissects in For Space. Noticeably, Packer had commented about his chief of theory that, were she given a history, “she’d disappear” (105). Now, on the West Side, Packer is given a history intimately related to place. And he does not disappear. His father, we read, had grown up there (159), and the reader is informed that there were times when Packer “was compelled to come and let the street breathe on him. He wanted to feel it, every rueful nuance of longing” (ibid.). After the sojourn in the non-place in its multiple variants, tower, restaurant, hotel, bookstore, or theater, Packer arrives at the physicality of place, a particular street, “a center of meaning constructed by experience” (Tuan 1975, 152). The street and the tenements on it are known “through the more passive and direct modes of experience.” They become known by their sensuality, their distinctive odors, textual and visual qualities (ibid.). That is where Packer abandons the digitalized reality of graphs and patterns to be absorbed into place, first on the street, then inside the barbershop. Simultaneously, he becomes absorbed in time. From the non-time of the future, Packer returns to the past.

Fittingly, Packer’s Prousted sense of reality morphs into a Proustian recherche du temps perdu, a search for the duration of time, suspended in this center of meaning constructed through experience. In the barbershop, “elapsed time hangs in the air, suffusing solid objects and men’s faces” (166). More than a business located on the wrong side of town, the locale is also a home that welcomes Packer, who is greeted by Anthony Adubato with a familiar formula: “But how come you’re such a stranger lately?” Barbershop cum home offers a place to sit and eat. For the first time in the novel, the rituals of eating, takeout or not, are carried out in a home, not a restaurant. Fixed in the past, the barbershop does not participate in the race towards the future. It harbors the same stories told with the very same words over and over again, contained in the same decrepit apartment where nothing changes. The armored sense of space Packer had carried around himself through the ride collapses, for at the barbershop the heterogeneous associations of space come to the surface. These associations, Massey remarks, point at the “throwntogetherness” of space, which is not capturable and sliced through time, and not intrinsically coherent (2005, 141). The barbershop becomes the stage of an open space that reverberates into past and present, for it not only engages the immigrant status of Anthony’s and Packer’s fathers, but the fate of contemporary migrants like the driver, who is invited inside. Eating and talking, Anthony and Ibrahim discover they had driven taxis in New York many years apart. The barbershop becomes the perfect example of a sphere of relations, in Massey’s words, the site of a “contemporaneous multiplicity” that is always under construction (2005, 148), for there is always another potential immigrant undergoing similar torture; always another immigrant driving cabs on the streets of New York. If Packer’s wife learns about the conflicts of the world by riding in the backseat of New York cabs as a detached fldneuse, the multimillionaire finally engages with the different trajectories crisscrossing the city on the premises of the barbershop. Thus the barbershop becomes a vortex, or, in Massey’s terms, “a locus of the generation of new trajectories and new configurations” (2005, 141) where stories and experiences are thrown together.

It is also the site where Anthony, the immigrant, offers the rituals of hospitality to the new migrants. One of them, Ibrahim, comes from the con- flictive countries of the world; Packer comes from the turbulent corporate society he has contributed to generating. He is an immigrant and an emissary from cyberspace. Past, present, and future immigrants conform the ends of this vortex of time and space that DeLillo situates in the barbershop, the site of “entanglements and configurations of multiple trajectories, multiple histories” (Massey 2005, 148). Hence the notion of identity, of what an immigrant is, is set in motion through the different layers of otherness. It is a subtle image of hysteron proteron, an instance of a bankrupt Packer that seeks admittance into the sphere of relations his father departed from. Not surprisingly, Packer feels safe and finally falls asleep.

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