By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
It‘s a nice passage, but the problem with what Bingham says is that you don’t believe a word of it. If the novel were more madcap and satirical -- if the spirit of Evelyn Waugh floated over it, or if Kirn had written the novel in the third person, making Bingham more obviously part of the comedy -- this sort of thing might work better. The book‘s flaw is that although the society it describes is real, its hero never seems to be. Bingham isn’t really a character in any meaningful sense, anyway. He‘s just a clever novelist’s projection of how someone who lives an ultracorporate life would think and feel. Unlike the mordant hero of Joseph Heller‘s Something Happened -- another novel with a corporate Everyman at its center -- Bingham lacks the power to wound, since there is no felt reality behind his words. At his best, he is simply Kirn’s mouthpiece for social commentary. On the personal level, he‘s about as affecting as a hologram.
Revealingly, it’s only near the end of the novel, when Bingham is finally about to reach his million miles, that Kirn suddenly has him take note of the airport employees he has come to know during his years in Airworld. Their earlier absence is telling, because those people -- the baggage handlers and shoeshine men and cashiers and X-ray technicians -- don‘t live in Airworld, they just work in it. Nor do they think and talk remotely like Bingham and his otherworldly corporate peers. But to sustain the icy, paranoid, postmodern tone of a novel like this requires omitting such humdrum examples of humanity, even if they represent the majority. Instead, we get characters who say things like
”Listen, you look like hell. Nice boots, but from there on up you’re Guatemalan. If I was a fag I‘d reach over and fix your hair. And your ’I‘m too busy to floss’ thing just isn‘t working. That may go over fine among the Navajo, but this is white America. Colgate country.“
Up in the Air is Kirn’s third volume of fiction, and whatever its faults, there‘s no doubt that it’s the work of an unusually talented novelist. The book is sharply written and precisely observed. It works best, perhaps, as a cautionary tale of America‘s increasingly outlandish business practices and as a travelogue of a replicant corporate landscape peopled by ever more ghostly shapes. No surprise, then, that memorable characters are scarce and that the reader has a hard time caring much about Bingham’s fate. There ain‘t much soul in Airworld -- and things don’t look too pretty on the ground, either. Which would seem to be Kirn‘s point.