Note: This piece has gone through several iterations over time, and concerns the experience of staying at business hotels. I have stayed in a number of such hotels over the years and engaged deeply with the room-space in each case. At this point, I am prepared to say that I am “good at” staying in hotels (an absurd claim that I advance nonetheless), and feel authorized to advance some notes toward a general hotel theory. Facility as a hotel guest though not exactly a marketable skill, has yielded some insights about the general, perhaps archetypal, nature of the modern hotel stay. Despite at this point considerable experience in the field, I continue to find the hotel experience at once comforting and bizarre, and hotel rooms, when properly apportioned, womb-like and exercising a specific and fascinating gravity. Also, the first draft of this piece was completed when Larry King was still alive.

Part I:

The TV was turned to CNN, which was focused on violence somewhere. I could not tell where. The experts in their suits and hairsprayed hair presented the conflict as if conflict was inevitable. They agreed it was happening now and could be prevented, but at the same time at the conclusion of the piece they smiled politely and signed off as if the violence was also occurring in a land so distant it might as well be the past.

Emily Maloney

I have stayed in quite a number of business hotels, in quite a number of countries. This piece provides, in essence, a sort of “psychograph” of the business hotel experience. Three features of business hotels that we may want to consider are: i) like airports, all business hotels share a single ethos, an un-pindownable character that feels, wherever one happens to be geographically speaking, of a piece; ii) the effect of the television offerings, in particular CNN International, on the business traveler, is one of overwhelming relaxation, bordering on complacency and even numbness; iii) as a corollary to i), it is far easier to enumerate how business hotels resemble one another than to lay out any salient differences.

Oddly, minor local variations only seem to further reinforce a central sameness. Checking into an 11th floor room at a classic example of the species, for instance the Numzau Tokyu Hotel, half an hour south of Tokyo, Japan, one is affected at once by that strangely pleasant fugue state, a state of mind almost exactly halfway between bliss and malaise, attendant on “business” hotels. Once inside a business hotel, especially those neither top-of-the-line nor quite down-and-out, one is confronted with a kind of disembodied space which seems at once connected to a global network of similar hotels (accomplished in part through the simultaneously soothing and hypnotizing effect of CNN International) and disconnected from the local environment. The traveler is sucked into global weirdness through a combination of the flat, post-political window of CNN, the persistent low hum of the air conditioner, and the anodyne staleness, almost spartan, quality of the decor.

Oddly, any “artwork” or decorative flourishes that a hotel room may possess only serves to further a sense of featurelessness; the art in question being almost exclusively of the most banal nature–bland seascapes, abstracts denuded of all edge or verve, and those odd non-paintings that, try as you might, you forget the second you exit your room. One has to remind oneself that a business trip means that there is work to be done–the TV, the slight high resulting from contact with the bowing attendants, the men in black, and the blushing young lady who carries your bag, the knowledge that your company is footing the bill–all this lulls you into a kind of sleep of the spirit.

Turning on the TV, you feel that you could spend years, lifetimes even, staring at CNN’s Larry King (the long-dessicated one), the post-racial female anchors who bring that special Code 46 feel of the non-overt future, or the exquisitely paralyzing “World Weather,” before awakening in another age, the Rip Van Winkle of the travel world. When CNN finally wears out its welcome, one’s choices of pay channels open up the fascinating worlds of…golf (the Golf Channel), silicone starlets (the Playboy Channel), intimate acts in close-up (the “adult channel”), and, most fittingly, drama set in outer space (the Battlstar Galatica channel). This profile of options, golf, softcore, hardcore, and outer space, the result, presumably, of reams of data on the tastes of business travelers like me, the mobile working male, I want to find depressing, but the menu has something beautifully efficient about it. Not wanting to get sucked into the anesthesizing vortex of any of these choices, I have to force myself to rise from the supine contemplation of the only-vaguely Chinese news anchor and move on with the day.

My senses are momentarily quickened by a report of an attack on a hotel in Pakistan: a horrific assault which has taken place at a Marriott in Islamabad. Oddly, the reality of this event quickly fades, and what Richard Todd calls the “non-ness” of the Marriott up the road strangely becomes the non-ness of violence–the attack in Islamabad conveys, through the lens of the CNN International, not exactly shock, but a continuing and deepening sense of global weirdness only slightly tinged by fear resting on the realization that as a business traveler in exactly this kind of hotel, I am the target. Oddly, this realization is not as disturbing as it ought to be: my fugue state is such that I am more in, more of, Islamabad than Numazu, but not wholly there either. Instead, I am poised somewhere between Islamabad and Battlestar Galactica, cavorting with post-racial android news anchors who bring me news of a planet this 11th floor, air-conditioned bubble of a non-space has left far behind.

Part II:

A hotel room is a prison that changes from town to town/ a bed four walls and a window a clean and scratchy towel/ a hotel room is a prison that always waits for me/ a prison with a wake-up call and an in-house laundry.

Mark Sandman

In part II of this essay will we delve a little deeper into the business hotel experience using as a lens “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.” Ballard probably needs no introduction, but for those who have yet to fall until his influence, he is the author of “Empire of the Sun” and “Crash” who wrote dozens of fantastic semi-Sci Fi short stories in the late 1950s and through the 1960s including “Prima Belladonna,” Thirteen to Centaurus,” and “The Terminal Beach.” Ballard novels, in my opinion, are not as uniformly satisfying as his short stories; at novel length his “obsessions,” beach resorts, empty swimming pools, gated communities, plastic surgery, car crashes, the interplay of sexuality and technology, tend to wear a little thin.

In “Conversations,” Ballard offers the following defense of his insularity and thematic repetition: “I think the values of bourgeois society by and large have triumphed. We’re living in a world where people at the age of 22 and 23 are thinking about their mortgages. It is a fact, and there’s nothing much on can do about it, except cultivate one’s obsessions and one’s own imagination” (144), but this approach works better in his short stories (which Ballard has not written for nearly two decades now), where his limited set of concerns are reflected and replayed through a panoply of settings and situations such that he resembles a virtuoso musician building off of certain stable base elements to create endless riffs and improvisations.

As a boy, Ballard was, famously, incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, and this formative experience informs both his autobiographical “Empire of the Sun” and his short stories. But instead of literal prisons with externally imposed walls and limitations, Ballard’s characters seem over and over again to be immured within prisons of their own creation. Story after story features some variation on one of two related themes; scientists careening off on private quests that eventually destroy them or people seemingly sequestered or restrained who turn out to be acting in psychic complicity with their imprisonment. Ballard himself admits to the centrality of the prison experience in “Conversations” when Mark Pauline asks him “Writing Empire of the Sun hasn’t helped you forget those horrible years in the camp” and Ballard responds “But I’ve been writing about it all the time–I just wrote about it in disguise” (138).

“J.G. Ballard: Conversations” was overseen by one V. Vale, who, to all appearances, is a full-fledged Ballard maniac, and contains a number of Vale’s telephone conversations with Ballard and other Ballardians including the composer Graeme Revell and Ballard archivist, David Pringle. Ballard has a lot to say about that particular semi-reality fugue state described in my earlier post. As noted above, Ballard has a special fascination with self-imposed psychic incarceration: “I have a nightmare vision of a gated community of extremely expensive houses inside a larger gated community. It’s bizarre” (72). Ballard is also concerned with the dual themes of self-immurement and the mind-meld that occurs between the individual and their media systems. These two themes may not seem to be obviously related, but after reading 300 pages of Ballard on the telephone, all of his particular obsessions do seem intertwined, and connect with my experience of staying in business hotels. Take for example Ballard on why Surrealism no longer obtains:

“Classical surrealism, beginning after the First World War, made a very clear distinction between the outer world of reality {…} and the inner world of imagination {…} But after the Second World War, particularly as the media landscape developed enormously–thanks to television, mass advertising and the whole consumer goods landscape–the distinction between our reality and inner fantasy began to break down {…} This means that it’s very difficult to maintain the dichotomy, that contrast that the Surrealists required {…} As I’ve said before, in the last 20 years if you stop somebody in the street and ask the time, you might look at a watch with Mickey Mouse on the dial {…} It cuts the ground from under classical Surrealism” (166).

When viewing CNN International at a business hotel, I realize, pace Ballard, that the world as reflected does have aspects of the surreal, especially in the consummately inoffensive manner in which it presents horrific international incidents interlaced with “the exquisitely paralyzing World Weather” and 9-ball tournaments from Bangkok replayed several times a day. This approach effectively colonizes my own imagination by rendering the unthreatening creepy and and the unbearable passe.

The oddest thing about CNN International is that the news itself is actually not all that bad. Real news about real, important, global events, comes across the airwaves, but it gets somehow stripped on much of its impact through the presentation. Ballard in 1991: “We get the Newzak all the time. It’s been homogenized, trivialized, and there’s too much filler added to smooth it down so that it comes out like paste from a tube” (178). It’s not that the news isn’t there, it’s just that, pace Ballard, there is no room for either surrealism or real impact. Ballard explains that the Dali/ Bunuel films (Un chien andalou and L’ Âge d’or), so shocking at the time, would not work today: “The sight of people dragging dead donkeys through a dining room would {seem to be} some sort of advertising stunt–a beer commercial” (166). Here is David Pringle on why Ballard is not a Marxist:

“Ballard, being a good Freudian, is much more interested in the individual’s–yours and mine–collusion with what’s going on, our secret wishes, that in the idea of conspiracy–that there are conspiratorial entities out there trying to ‘get us’ {…} Ballard asks, ‘What are you out to do to yourself? What are you own darkest wishes? What are we all doing to ourselves collectively?'” (226).

Ballard also writes “I accept the Surrealist formula: the need to place the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible, to remake the world around us by the power of one’s imagination, which after all is all we’ve got. I mean, the central nervous system is faced with a world of Mariott hotels and ex-actors turned world leaders, dangerous medicines and you name it. The individual central nervous system can only attempt to make sense of this” (276).

Eventually, if she has even the slightest modicum of self-awareness, the business traveler comes face to face with Ballard’s question: “‘What are you out to do to yourself? What are you own darkest wishes? What are we all doing to ourselves collectively?’ This is because the enervating lassitudinal comfort of your standard Mariott is, in the worst possible sense, addictive. When you begin to run down the list of hotel features: airport pickup, bowing attendants, elevators, room service, air conditioning, permanently locked windows, security barrier, ubiquitous carpeting, fresh towels and soap, overpriced but almost appetizing meals, pool and hot tub, 9-ball on a loop, world weather, all these items add up to a simulacrum of a total existence that very quickly begins to edge out the rest of the world–there is no need to leave the compound and submission to the soft tyranny of over-priced conveniences sets in almost immediately.

At the same time, CNN International allows the illusion of connectedness while in fact only furthering one’s suspension in the high-rise ether of the business hotel complex. “One has the illusion you’ve seen a place in fact when you haven’t seen it at all. All you’ve seen are the airports and the hotels” (288). Ballard here hints at something I have long felt to be the case: all airports actually belong to a single country, and the vast majority of business hotels likewise sit uneasily within their supposed national confines; they are more like each other than they are like the buildings or community around them. The overpriced airport hotel in Tokyo resembles nothing so much as the overpriced airport hotel in Vancouver, which in turn is the kissing cousin of the airport hotel in Beijing, etc. Here again, local differences only seem to accentuate a basic central identicalness.

Ballard again: “People use mental formulas that they’ve learned from TV. Even in ordinary conversation, if you’re talking to the mechanic at the garage about whether you need new tires for your car, you and he probably talk in a way that his equivalent thirty years ago would never have done. You use–not catch phrases but verbal formulas. Suddenly you realize you’re hearing echoes of some public-information, accident-prevention commercial. It’s uncanny” (83).

(Ballard has the strange habit of ending thought after thought with “It’s bizarre;” “It’s strange;” “It’s uncanny”–this verbal tick serves as a running indicator of the way that Ballard sees the world and helps explain how, over the course of a novel, he can focus on a certain object, a tennis machine for example, or swimming pool, with such relentless obsessed focus that the formerly normal becomes invested with a kind of pathological creepiness that entirely transcends simplistic one-to-one correlative symbolism.)

Ballard’s central point here hints again at the colonizing power of certain ideas and turns of phrases which seep into our everyday speech, tempered only by feeble attempts to ironize. Thus, when in the course of normal conversation one refers to a storm as “an extreme climatological event,” to a sign as “singage,” or to a car crash as “a simultaenous intersection of vehicular components” the use of such terms, although masked with a patina of apparently self-knowing irony is still, in its own way, perfectly sincere. Here, submission to the linguistic idiocy of corporate non-speak marries submission to the blissful “non-ness” of the business hotel, a paradise of our own collective fantasy where the towels are always clean, the windows are always closed, and 9-ball is always on.

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