Monday, January 4, 2010

Up In The Air
Walter Kirn

rating: 4 out of 10 "books"

Having spotted this book at my local Target store one early December day, and having seen the movie trailers for the new book-turned-movie starring George Clooney, I decided to give this Walter Kirn story a try. I had seen the movie version of Thumbsucker which Kirn had also written, so I knew Up In The Air would be just as interesting of a story, or at least a pretty interesting idea.

That being said, Up In The Air is indeed a pretty interesting case study of Ryan Bingham, a business man who spends more time in the air, traveling from city to city to take on the task of firing people for different corporations, than anywhere else. A self described member of a “mutated species,” Ryan takes comfort in the whole process of flying: from the VIP airport clubs, to the adrenaline rush of taking off and landing, Ryan finds peace in what he calls “Airworld.” With no earthly place to call home, only an apartment used for the storage of his few belongings, Ryan Bingham calls Airworld his home. As he describes, Airworld is “a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood, and even its own currency – the token economy of airline bonus miles that I’ve come to value more than dollars.” At the start of the story, we discover that Ryan is on his “farewell tour.” Fed up with his job at ISM as a Career Transition Counselor, Ryan decides to quit after “six more days and eight more cities to go,” on his itinerary. The major deciding factor for his quit date however, is the few more flights on the company dime that he needs to reach one million frequent flyer miles. After that, he swears he will quit. With a juicy book in the works and an increasingly prospective job at MythTech in the near future, Ryan figures he should be golden. But what we come to learn in the course of the story is that Airworld is taking its toll on Ryan. From his “mounting memory problems,” to his growing paranoia that someone high up is trying to toy with him (he suspects it could be the airline, his company ISM, MythTech, etc.), combined with his obsession with obtaining his coveted one million frequent flyer miles, Ryan is clearly falling apart.

I found this story very fascinating in the way that Kirn’s character Ryan finds comfort in things people normally despise. The beginning of this story was very entertaining to read about Ryan Bingham’s attitude towards his life in “Airworld.” From the way he views people in Airworld; the normal: “Fast friends aren’t my only friends, but they’re my best friends,” and the famous: with all the athletes, rock stars, and famous people he’s flown with in first class, “This is the place to see America, not down there, where the show is almost over,” it’s an interesting outlook to read about. We see where Ryan’s love of Airworld comes from, and ride alongside him all the way to the very end.

The only problem is that the story feels unfinished. The beginning and middle I felt were very well written; however, although we know Ryan is starting to lose it, we never really feel it. There are little reminders throughout, but they don’t mesh in very well with the rest of the action. The lead up to the end of the story was very confusing, and the whole issue of Ryan’s paranoia is never really revealed to be one way or another. The biggest let down was the ending. Things are revealed that were never really hinted at anywhere in the book, and as a reader I didn’t feel the excitement and accomplishment of Ryan’s obtaining the all important frequent flyer miles which encompassed the entire goal of the story. It left me feeling like nothing really happened at all in the book. Hence the reason I’ve only given Up In The Air 4 out of 10 book stars.

After reading an Entertainment Weekly article about the book and movie comparisons where article author, Missy Schwartz, describes the book as being “about a man having a mental breakdown, a guy who’s losing it,” and the movie as being “about a guy who finds it,” I’d be interested in seeing the movie as a way of comparing the two. After all, the movie is getting tons of good buzz, and changes in the plot have surely helped the story out. They book by Walter Kirn is definitely not one that can be read in one sitting and although I rated it as average, it’s definitely a different kind of read if that’s what you are looking for. My suggestion: go see the movie instead, but if you are planning on both reading the book and seeing the movie, read the book first to lower your expectations for the film. That way, you can’t be disappointed by both.

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