Thursday, January 7, 2010

Up in the Air - Walter Kirn

Up In the Air by Walter Kirn
Reviewed by Zack Frazier

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn is a frenetic novel, filled with all the “joys” of modern air travels. minus the thing the TSA makes you do with your shoes. It was published just months before September 11th, 2001. After that tragedy Kirn’s book was forgotten in the new anxiety over air travel. Year’s later director Jason Reitman has put Kirn’s narrator and hero Ryan Bingham back into the pseudo-friendly skys, and Kirn’s book is now back on the map.

On its face Up in the Air is about Bingham’s Quest for 1 million frequent flyer miles on the budget airline his company has forced him to travel on. The book begins with Bingham addressing you, his new single serving friend. Bingham begins telling his tale, and from the start things seem normal. The first chapters have a plucky, sane, and cheerful narrative that draw the reader into Kirn's novel.

A bit deeper is Bingham’s discontent for his job as a Career to Career Transitions Specialist, or a layoff consultant for executives. A large part of the book is focused on his quest to change his corporate destiny and work for Myth Tec, a marketing research company who’s work is never quite made clear, until the end of the book.

The real story though, and what makes this book incredible, is that Bingham is going mad. The steadiness of those chapter disappears gradually as Bingham opens up. With his admissions of sins and obsessions gaps begin to appear. The spreading gaps and erratic energy that grows in the narrative like a sting being pulled from a sweater. The question becomes not is Bingham sane, our his adventures normal, but how crazy is he?

In many ways we go mad with him, because while Bingham has a tragic excuse for his issues, we the reader don’t. Bingham is very much a cog in our society, a modern day corporate every man. When we pity him, when we hate him, when we are disgusted with him, we reflect that back on ourselves. Bingham like the nameless narrator in Fight Club, is un-located by the new modernity. Both Bingham, and the Fight Club narrator no longer have fathers, but more importantly both are employed for corporations doing work that demands detachment; personal, positional, and emotional. Both go mad slowly because of that detachment. Bingham is up in the air not only for us but with us. When we listen to his story we can come to realize what is un-situated with ourselves by society and modern capitalism. This ability to allow for meaningful reflection makes Up in the Air not just good art, but also art that is worth reading. Maybe understanding where we aren’t is as important as understanding where we are, or will be. Up in the Air provides the reader with a new perspective on all three.

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