Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review ~ Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

upintheairhardcover-440x663Up 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!

3.5/5 Snakes

Below, watch a 2 minute teaser for the movie, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham.


  1. I totally identify with your thinking on reading the book instead of seeing the movie (or at least reading the book first)! Whenever I see a movie preview I am interested in--I go out and buy the book and just end up skipping the movie. Thanks for sharing.....

  2. I saw the film and the story is very different from what you write.... The book looks more interesting (though I liked the film) !
    Thanks for your review!

  3. I, too, have seen the movie (and *blush* didn't even realize there was a book). Honestly, I wasn't all that impressed with the movie. If I had to guess, I'd say you'll be disappointed in it. At least if you have nothing else to keep you from dying of boredom while you're folding laundry or ironing, it won't kill you to watch it.

    You can read my take of the movie here:

  4. I like what you mentioned about Kirn's show-don't-tell approach. That's my preference. I haven't read Up in the Air, but I started Thumbsucker a while back. I recall liking the movie, but I didn't get into the book.

  5. This sounds like a really interesting book. I'm really not a big fan of movies based on books, but if I do watch one I also try to read the book first.

  6. Julie~ It seems a lot of avid readers are the same way when it comes to this.

    Caroline~ Although the book hasn't been as well received by the majority that have read it, I really enjoyed it. I like books that make me think.

    Kathy~ I have seen the movie since I wrote this review, and I actually really enjoyed it. I wonder if you might have had a deeper appreciation for it if you had read the book before seeing it? I can see that it does run at a slow pace though, which doesn't appeal to everybody. And they did hype it up a lot. I should have a book/movie comparison review up by the weekend.

    Charley~ I have Thumbsucker on my TBR list. I look forward to reading it as a comparison to his style in this one.

    Simcha~ It's definitely worth the read, in my opinion.