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Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

By Caroline | Books | January 25, 2010 | Comments ()

By Caroline | Books | January 25, 2010 |


vera-farmiga-up-in-the-air.jpg

When a book I like is made into a movie, I value the not-a-movie-tie-in copy all the more -- it makes me feel sad and cheap to read a book that's wearing a big "Now a Major Motion Picture!" sticker. Of course, George Clooney isn't on my copy, and who could ever say that's a fair trade?

Walter Kirn's 2001 book Up in the Air followed one of my most deeply loved favorite books, Thumbsucker. Up in the Air fell on my deaf ears by necessity: I was no adult, and the corporate world held no interest for me. After his previous novel of poignant teen angst and orthodontia, how could I relate to this new novel? I couldn't, and my disappointment steeped for eight years.

"They're making a movie out of that book I hate?" I said many times in 2009.

Kirn's book faced an unusual obstacle, as far as I could see. His wonderful other novel was made into an OK movie, and now the adaptation of a book I disliked was raking in huge awards buzz. But the descriptions of the movie never matched with my memory of the book, and I had to reread it to remember one way or the other.

I haven't seen the movie, but I can say the book is exactly as I remembered: neurotic, complex, populated with empty people. What I see now that I didn't before is that Kirn affects this tone on purpose, draws his world with people you dislike or barely notice, populates his main characters' minds with the most bland, Michael Scott preferences masquerading as his ticket into the high-rollers' club.

Ryan Bingham works as a "transitions" man: he comes in after a firing to do recognizance and triage. At the book's beginning, he believes he's approaching a juncture in his career between his previous job and a new, mysterious role at a smoke-and-mirrors business consulting house. He is also attempting to break the one-million-mile mark as a frequent flier and has a then-unheard-of "digital assistant" device to coordinate his entire schedule.

For his flakiest sister's upcoming wedding, he spends exorbitantly and begins a stock portfolio for her. When his sisters call they ask where he is and he frequently lies; he isn't sure why it matters where he's calling from, and chooses a city to assuage a worry whose origins he doesn't understand. At some points he gobbles pills by the handful, at others he wantonly mistreats the few people who like and recognize him; but again, a suspended-animation manchild is no different from an adolescent when it comes to likable behaviors.

Bingham's eagerness and absolute devotion to the corporate "Airworld" in which he lives make it hard to resist him, and the way he comments inwardly about all the people he remembers, all the ways he tries to make a good impression, it all made me root for him despite myself. He knows what clout fakingstance and posturing hold in his chosen field, watches others as they behave affectedly:

His painful, frostbitten feet explained the slippers, but the bubbles he blew were the purest affectation, intended to show that he plays by his own Hoyles. He knows, as all the cleverest ones do, that no human being is so interesting that he can't make himself more interesting still by acting retarded at random intervals.

The book is a roast of corporate zeitgeist, of the talking heads whose shortest thoughts make up entire books, and of what we each lose by taking one step too far into that hype and altered reality. I also got a warm, anti-busyness feeling as Bingham's completely planned journeys and meetings began falling apart, although he has great adaptability and takes the obstacles in stride. The obstacles themselves form an interesting subplot, and it speaks to Bingham's nature that his greatest adversary is the same corporate culture responsible for his success. When he suspects someone is out to get him, it isn't a someone at all. It's a whole company without a face.

A lady appears in the book, but is not significant except in the red flags sent up by Bingham's treatment of her. There is also no junior colleague, no plans to change corporate M.O. -- in fact, Bingham states at the beginning that he's leaving his job and has submitted a resignation. The idea of sending a colleague he must rely on for a new way of doing business is contradictory to the book's message and makes me wary of the movie. Kirn explained it this way on "All Things Considered:"

In this case, a whole new character had to be introduced. A sort of sidekick had to be given to a lonely hero who spends most of the time in the novel observing and thinking about his world. But now we had to give him a chance to talk about his world.

If you work in the corporate world, I suspect you will like or at least relate to this book. If you're interested in comeuppance by proxy, some karmic punishment for an ascetic corporate life, then step into Ryan Bingham's office. It isn't an office at all, and yet houses his many, many issues.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Caroline's reviews, check out her blog, Of a Golden Age.


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