Up in the Air is not a novel that I would have picked up, had it not been for my desire to see the movie. I seem to cling to an OCDish need to read the book that the movie is based upon before I will allow myself to see it. I can only assume that this is a story preservation tactic, as I trust my imagination and interpretation over some Hollywood producer, and have witnessed the butchering of one too many great books. That being said, I have heard from countless people that in this case, the movie has very little to do with Walter Kirn’s book. Be that as it may, I held steadfast to my regular routine.
In the novel we are met with Ryan Bingham, a career transition counselor/business consultant, who sidelines as a motivational speaker. Seeing him walk through the doors of your firm is not a welcome sight, as this usually means that people will be losing their jobs. After you’ve been fired, he is the hired muscle that will teach you the skills needed to move on, as he walks you out the door to new opportunities, instead of blatantly throwing you and your box filled with 25 years worth of personal effects, through a plate-glass window. Due to a mounting dissatisfaction with his career, and an assumption that he is being scouted-out for a coveted position in a stealth marketing firm, MythTech, he has left a letter of resignation waiting for his vacationing boss.
Ryan has spent the majority of his time traveling on airplanes back and forth between failing companies, and as a consequence has racked up nearly one million frequent flyer miles. In fact, he is excitedly preparing to ascend into the ‘million dollar club’ before his job ends, and throughout the novel we observe this obsessive need consume his thoughts and even dictate changes to his erratic itinerary. He whittles away his time focusing on his ‘Airworld’ status instead of looking at what is really important in his life, things that will give him the self-satisfaction that he so desperately craves.
While at one moment it would appear that Ryan is enjoying his busy life on the road, staying in hotels all over the country, meeting all sorts of interesting people, in the next moment it becomes apparent that he has been kidding himself, and is not healthy, nor of sound mind. Outside of his family that he rarely sees, his relationships consist of acquaintances and random travelers. He is increasingly paranoid and distrustful of his employer as well as the airline that he flies with. We watch him unravel and mentally deteriorate as he fixates on those that he perceives are out to get him, coping by gambling and abusing alcohol and drugs. Things just start to catch up with him.
The ending sheds a lot of light into the lives of some of the mentor-like, omnipotent and successful people that Ryan looks up to throughout the novel. He learns that his illusions are grand and misplaced, as their truths become clear. Everything he believed in appears to be turning into an extravagant myth. These realizations offer him the honesty to look at himself, and his truths, with acceptance.
Walter Kirn has an engaging, clever and subtle writing style that requires you to think, so don’t attempt this one unless you’re in the mood. As with any great writer he doesn’t tell the reader, he shows them. Throughout the novel I felt like a fellow passenger on one of Ryan’s flights, as he intimately shared his goals, his fears and his eventual realizations.
Now, I look forward to seeing what the movie has to offer!
Below, watch a 2 minute teaser for the movie, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham.