23 December 2010

"Up in the Air" by Walter Kirn

Up in the Air
Walter Kirn
Date of Publication: 3 July 2001
303 pages
Jacket Illustration by Pierre Le-Tan
Jacket Design by Umi Kenyon

Ryan Bingham is a burnout, but a goal-oriented one.  His job for a consulting firm, counseling recently terminated people, has left him emotionally depleted but along the way he's racked up nearly one million frequent flier miles on the company's dime.  We catch up to him as he is in striking distance of that millionth mile.  Before embarking on what he sees as a week long farewell tour, Ryan has left his notice of resignation on his boss's boss's desk, knowing it won't be retrieved or opened until after he's concluded his business.

At the end of the finish line, he'll get some face time with the CEO of the airline with whom he's accumulated these miles; the prospect of telling the guy off for all of his boneheaded changes that have resulted in a decline in the quality of his experiences is just one of the perks.  Ryan's sister Kara is getting married the day after his big day, but she, too, is a mess and her drama threatens to sidetrack him.  There's a strange undertone of incestuous attraction between the two, and it's just one of author Kirn's myriad nuances that both enrich the narrative and disconcert the reader.

At times, Up in the Air reads as a celebration of the high-flying, masters of the universe culture; Ryan's reverence for key businessmen is nearly worshipful.  Yet, his disillusionment with the actual men themselves as he encounters them as they really are suggests a rejection of that culture.  Ryan celebrates midwestern values, but steals prescription drugs from a girl he barely knows, regularly lies to his family (and lets them down) and makes no bones about the various women he's essentially used and discarded over the year.  In short, Ryan Bingham is as much who we as Americans are as who we wish to believe ourselves to be.  The question is whether Ryan ever really pieces together all of this and grows, and the truth is it's not apparent that he does.

We see Ryan jolted from coasting through his meticulous itinerary, led each time to events that seem certain to yield an epiphany.  Instead, Ryan avoids as many of these obligations and interruptions as possible and finds the quickest fix to anything he can't duck.  He recognizes that he's lost his faith in assorted individuals, but steadfastly reminds us time and again of the belief he has in people as a whole.  Maybe I'm just a cynic, but I felt cheated by never seeing Ryan extend his bitterness beyond specific former idols to humanity as a whole.  One thing's for sure: the novel reflects pre-9/11 America (it was first published 3 July 2001).  Eerie as it may seem, the novel spans 8-13 September; the 11th is depicted as a Wednesday, though, breaking from the 2001 calendar.

The structure is solid, and the pace of the novel benefits greatly.  Before you even see the first word of narration, there are three pages detailing Ryan's flight itinerary for the course of the novel.  Kirn keeps Ryan moving, constantly aware of the time of day and so we don't find ourselves wondering how long any given activity is actually taking him to complete.  When Ryan lets us know how long it takes him to meet with a client for dinner, we believe him.  Even though the novel doesn't occur in "real time," there's a sense that this is awfully close to it.  I just wish Kirn had been as attentive to Ryan's journey as he was to Ryan's flight plans.

A final note, specific to my own reading of Up in the Air: In a lot of ways, it complements the last two books I read (Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho and Diablo Cody's Candy Girl). All three are told in first person (though Cody's is a memoir, so that's fairly normal). Like Psycho, the novel heaps idealistic praise upon our corporate culture while exposing the individuals within it as fairly unlikable people, and there are passages that are ambiguous enough to leave the reader wondering just what the reality is that the p.o.v. character has perceived.  Like Candy Girl, there's a lot of talk about the midwest. Cody's book is 99% about Minneapolis, but each discusses subcultural values and mores of the region.  Both cut against the grain in a lot of ways, from Cody's line of work to Ryan technically being homeless, spending all his nights at one chain hotel or another.  I'm not saying the three should be taken as any kind of trilogy, but if you think you're up to it, there are a lot of common themes throughout the three.


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