It's too soon to call Walter Kirn's Up In The Air (Doubleday, 2001) a literary masterpiece, too soon to be sure that it's not just a brilliant flash in the pan. Masterpieces take time to develop, and the development begins in bookshops and book reviews. But 'Up in the Air' made me do something I've never done before, even in the toils of undergraduate exegesis. About two thirds of the way through, I got out a notebook and a pencil and sketched a loose diagram of five headings: Caves, Airworld, God, Family, and Memory. How could a anything but a literary masterpiece inspire a bunch like that?
It's the quote that I copied beneath 'Caves' that inspired this rough chart.
Business is folk wisdom, cave-born, dark, Masonic, and the best consultants are outright shamans who sprinkle on the science like so much fairy dust.
Not only is this one of the narrator's central observations - it may even be the heart of the novel - but it explains the murk within the road warrior's world of shiny airliners, glaring airports, and spare hotel rooms. Business travelers, according to this novel, inhabit a milieu of nondescript, interchangeable parts. There is a deliberate pointlessness about it, because one is always on the way to some other point. Ryan M. Bingham, the hero of 'Up in the Air,' calls it 'Airworld.' In my diagram, under 'Airworld' I set down a list: Miles, Plastic, Virtual, and "Choice." These are Airworld's elements and furnishings. (I have put the last item in brackets because what it really signifies, as Ryan uses it, is buying power.) If you hold 'Up in the Air' at a certain angle, it begins to look like the kind of science fiction that is set just far enough ahead in time to assume interplanetary travel without the setting's becoming unrecognizable. Ryan pays three visits that I can think of, offhand, to private homes in residential neighborhoods, but they're side trips from his circulation through much of the American West's transport system of roads and flight paths. The stations of his journey might as well be in space; what distinguishes one from another has nothing to do with the surrounding environment.
Miles, of course, are much more than a measure of distance in Airworld. They're a virtual currency, accumulated like points, one for every mile traveled, and redeemable for various travel-related goodies, such as free flights or, even better, upgrades from coach. Since each airline recognizes only miles accrued on its own flights, it behooves the sensible business traveler to pick an airline for life, and since most mileage programs feature tie-ins with hotel chains and rental car agencies, it may happen, as it does to Ryan, that you can get more miles by driving from point A to point B than you can by flying. As of this writing, miles generally accrue to the flier, even when the ticket has been paid for by the flier's employer, but there are growing exceptions, affecting in particular lower-tier employees. An executive like Ryan, however, can arrange to fly between points A and B via remote point X - in First Class, no less - and rake in the windfall miles. It's not something that I would care to do, probably because I regard Airworld as the objective manifestation of a bad hangover. But Ryan loves Airworld. He must: he's about to become what's called a Mileage Millionaire.
Before I was quite done with my diagram, I'd drawn a dotted line down the page, between Caves and Airworld on one side and God, Family and Memory on the other, and written 'CTC' at its top. These initials signify Ryan's specialty, Career Transition Counseling, which is what keeps him airborne. It is a euphemism for termination. When companies downsize, they call in men like Ryan, set them up in an out-of-the-way office, and send executives who have just been fired to him for a glorified pep talk. Or they have him sit in the executive's office while security operatives weed through the files and pack up personal possessions. Ryan has come to feel that the job is an awful lie, because what poses as a service to the executives is really a protection racket for their former employers. He is an executioner. He does not decide who will be terminated, but it's his job to make sure that termination causes the least amount of mess. The testing and counseling that he performs for his victims, he has learned, mean next to nothing, at least as predictors of these unhappy souls' future. We learn right away that Ryan has submitted a letter of resignation to his boss prior to taking the aisle seat next to us and telling us his story.
He started out at Integrated Strategic Management as an executive coach, but was shunted into CTC by a truly obnoxious colleague who started at ISM the very same day but whose political savvy took him down a very different career path. So while Ryan has done well at at his specialty, and apparently been handsomely paid for it, it's not want he wanted to do, and therefore his career, so far, is a failure. Ryan never comes out and says this; rarely has a confessional narrator been less inclined to beat his breast. "It's a job I fell into because I wasn't strong, and grew to tolerate because I had to, then suddenly couldn't stand another hour of." He tells us that he's got "other logs on the fire, but no flames yet." Such uncertainty about my professional security would make me ill - indeed, it did make me ill once - but Ryan Bingham is a cool customer, 'intrigued' by his options. Whether he's bluffing or sincere is a meaningless question, for Ryan is too disconnected from social life as most of us know it for the distinction to breathe.
You're meeting me on my farewell tour, with only six days and eight more cities to go. It's a challenging but routine itinerary, mixing business and pleasure and family obligations. There are people I need to see, some I want to see, and a few I don't know yet but may want to meet. I'll need to stay flexible, disciplined, and alert, and while it won't be easy, there's a payoff. Every year I've flown further than the year before, and by the end of this week, conditions willing, I'll cross a crucial horizon past which, I swear, I'll stop, sit back, and reconsider everything.
A million frequent flier miles. One million.
'Up in the Air' might have been a novel about a sociopath who has found a way to fit in, and perhaps Ryan will strike some readers as a monster - it will be "intriguing" to see. In a droll Business Section review in the Times the other day, "Fact and Fiction From Airworld," Fred Andrews calls Ryan an 'antihero,' but this judgment is either flip or mistaken. Ryan is Airworld's Everyman, or at least its average sensual man. Years of staying 'flexible, disciplined, and alert,' however, have drained the possibility of engagement from his life. His job, as I say, consists of flying around the Western states detaching people from their jobs. Would such a job be feasible without an over-articulated airline system, offering seats and safety (most of the time) at 'reasonable' prices? No. Rather than focus on Ryan's dysfunctions, the novel directs our gaze - or at least it directed mine - toward their vector: the strange and denaturing Airworld. What emerges is a picture of reciprocal adaptation. Ryan has adapted to an environment that has adapted to Ryan.
It is a personably impersonal world. The real world is never really impersonal, of course, but for the better part of a century, modernist writers have written about business life as though it were a soulless machine. In Kirn's Airworld, however, nobody behaves quite according to the rules. The airline personnel, although rarely in the foreground, act not like the robots that their employers would like them to be, but like people doing a tiring job. Almost without exception, the businessmen with whom Ryan interacts, casually or professionally, speak inappropriately about their objectives and their sorrows. The dean of Ryan's profession, whom he stops off to see in Ontario, California, about a business opportunity, has a surprising idea of his own up his sleeve, and if you're not paying attention you may miss it. The dialogue generally bristles with the menace of bad behavior. What makes these 'personable' encounters possible is the lack of consequences. Sure, you run into the same people here and there, but for the most part, relations have no future. There is certainly no commitment; almost any promise can be weaseled out of. In Airworld, there are no neighbors, because there are no houses. There are only seats and hotel rooms, none of them belonging to anyone for more than a few hours. As a world in transit, it deflates the possibility of history.
That's, I think, what's wrong with Airworld, and why Up in the Air reads like an uncannily cheerful nightmare. Designed to minimize fuss, and to encourage portability, Airworld flattens causality to a veneer from which all idea of responsibility has been sanded. Masters of the passive voice, the carriers absolve themselves of fault when planes are late or overbooked. They say that they're sorry, but they don't mean it, because it's not in the nature of a business to feel regret. When a flight attendant spills coffee on Ryan's shirt, she returns with a towel and a tender of a thousand frequent flier miles. The passengers respond by acting like students in a junior high school staffed by a vigilant principal and disaffected teachers: outwardly docile, they do whatever they can get away with. This is particularly true of relations between the sexes. Ryan and the women he befriends interact with a fecklessness that makes Dobie Gillis and his classmates look like the Dick Cheneys. The women may scheme to snag Ryan, or to shame him into attendance, but he wriggles out of their halters with an conscience unperturbed. He means no harm, certainly - unless, as seems unlikely in Airworld, it's harmful to trifle with someone's affections. Ryan's outrage strikes an adolescent note, when a cable television stock market pundit who has given him some earnest investment advice, wreathed in references to his clients, the Lutheran Bishops of America, shows up later at a lap-dancing club, going as whole as hog allows. Make no mistake: this is not 'Lord of the Flies' territory. Airworld's regulars are far too concerned with appearances to lapse into bestiality. Their trousers are creased and their hair is shiny and full; their accessories are expensive and must be paid for with long stretches of sitting around, listening, in sessions seldom more interesting than algebra class (is there still such a thing as algebra class?). The real problem is the emptiness of it all, which leads what Ryan finds a distressing number of fliers to God - a God who seems perfectly at home in Airworld, not inclined to record anybody's sins in a big book.
Ryan himself is having memory problems. His older sister claims that a friend of hers saw him in Salt Lake City, which he has no immediate recollection of visiting recently. Somebody else has been misusing his credit cards. A prospective publisher claims that the business parable that Ryan has written in his spare time - called after a part of the world so different from Airworld that it's difficult to conceive of Ryan in it, 'The Garage' - has been plagiarized; that an executive to whom Ryan disclosed its principal ideas in the course of a 'counseling' session, has published it already. Kirn toys with the possibility of a doppelgänger, and for a while, Ryan is convinced that the airline is fooling with him, prodding him, looking him over, examining the man who's going to be its tenth mileage millionaire. Mild paranoia has a curious, almost lightening effect.
A zip code is something I'd rather do without. Zip codes are how they find you, how they track you. They start with five numbers and finish with a profile, down to the movies you're likely to go see and the pizza toppings you prefer. I'm not paranoid, but I am my father's son, and much of my fascination with marketing stems from my fear of being the big boys' patsy. Sure, today, we live in a democracy, and yes, for the most part, it leaves us to ourselves, but there are ambitious people who'd like to change this, and some who boast that they're already succeeded.
The ordinary man responds to the fear that his privacy will be invaded by stepping up the security that hedges it. Ryan's strategy is to do without the contents of privacy. This extends far beyond unlisted numbers and the White Rabbit lifestyle.
I know of no pleasure more reliable than consuming a great American brand against the backdrop featured in its advertising. Driving a Ford pickup down brown dirt roads. Swigging a Coke on the beach in Malibu. Flying Great West over central Colorado. It's a feeling of restfulness and order akin, I suspect, to how the ancient Egyptians felt watching the planets line up over the Pyramids. You're in the right place, you're running with the right forces, and if the wind should howl tomorrow, let it.
This can only be called stunted. Finding oneself in a position to impersonate the characters in a TV spot does produce a sort of gee-whiz impulse, but in my experience this quickly decays into a sticky, unpleasant self-consciousness; imitating grownups is something only children feel comfortable doing. But Ryan isn't horsing around. He isn't acting, but becoming. For him, the experience is a kind of incarnation. What was only an image on TV is made real, because he's living it.
The field of executive counseling appears in this book to be a surface of motivational posters and encouraging mantras stretched over a depth of manipulation and primitive anxieties. A superstitious regard for paradoxical novelty (e.g., getting fired seen as an 'opportunity') seems to blind both client and consultant to the fact that nothing very intelligent is going on. Never for an instant does Kirn condescend to his characters, but I could not repress the feeling that they were all rather average as to talents and training, gifted only with good looks and luck. As with teenagers, the absence of vocation is filled by cynicism: perhaps that's the difference between businessmen and consultants.
It could have been funny that Ryan's trip through six days does not take him to the eight cities on his itinerary, or that his hotel rooms rarely come up to snuff, or that he loses one bag and finds another, or that his principal source of excitement is trying to nail down a schedule change. Up In The Air comes very close, and very often, to a disaster farce. But while I smiled through a good deal of it,' and even chuckled here and there, I rarely laughed, even at the really funny bits, because I was simply too afraid on Ryan's behalf. A plane crash seemed the simplest mishap that might befall him; with his impaired memory, conspiracy theories, and impending joblessness - not to mention his Airworld-grade health - he looked in pretty bad shape to me, despite his smart-guy tone. I've said that the author teases his character with the possibility that there's another Ryan M. Bingham out there, but that's nothing next to the job that he does on the reader, loading the narrative with unreliable-narrator cues. Just how deluded will Ryan turn out to be? Kirn charges this question with a full measure of suspense, and when it comes time for the answer, he lets us down gently, almost wistfully. It's a beautiful ending for a novel, although I suspect that Ryan might have preferred his paranoid version.
An equally gentle and wistful passage that I find myself remembering fondly is embedded in an episode of paranoia at the beginning of the sixth chapter. I will close with it.
I'm in the back row of the Reno airport chapel, sitting out a forty-minute delay with a fruit-topped frozen yogurt and this morning's USA Today, when it happens again for the second time since August: I'm gripped by the feeling that I've just been paged. I missed the name, yet I'm certain it was mine. Someone wants me. Someone needs me. Now.
I fold the paper and put it in my briefcase and listen for the announcement to be repeated. Few people know that most airports have houses of worship: they tend to be white, high-ceilinged, scrubbed, and soundproof, imbued with a spirituality so general that even atheists can find refuge in them. They go unused, for the most part, except in times of emergency and terror - after a crash or when a war breaks out. They're eerie little niches but also restful and perfect for catching up on paperwork. If someone arrives to pray or meditate while I'm using one, which seldom happens, I bow and pretend to be sunk in deep reflection as I fell out an expense report or rejigger my itinerary.
[Just like junior high!]
The voice was female, that's all I'm sure of now... (July 2001)
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