Ryan Bingham, the 35-year-old protagonist of Walter Kirn‘s latest novel, Up in the Air, is a corporate consultant whose life is spent in airplanes, airports, rental cars and hotel rooms that look exactly the same no matter what city he happens to find himself in. He doesn’t have a home anymore, being too peripatetic to make one necessary. ”To know me you have to fly with me,“ he says in the novel‘s opening paragraph. ”Sit down. I’m the aisle, you‘re the window — trapped. You crack your paperback, last spring’s big legal thriller, convinced that what you want is solitude, though I know otherwise: you need to talk.“
Not that you‘d ever get a word in. The talking in this novel is done by Bingham, a man who claims to have had a traditional Midwestern boyhood but who sounds like someone conceived, nurtured and educated inside the chiseled sentences of a Don DeLillo novel, as do most of the people he meets in the postmodern hell of perpetual transit he calls ”Airworld.“ Bingham has only one goal in life, which is to accumulate a million miles on his account with his favorite airline, Great West, and at the novel’s start he is only a few thousand miles from accomplishing it. But to get there he‘s going to have to work fast, visiting eight cities in six days. He has already sent a letter of resignation to his boss at Integrated Strategic Management, who won’t read it until he returns from vacation. Which leaves Bingham with just enough time to bounce frantically around the western half of the country (at company expense), wrapping up business with various crackpot clients and corporate shamans before attending his sister‘s wedding, then finally bid adieu to Airworld and return to some sort of normalcy.
If there’s an idea behind Bingham‘s amassing of frequent — frantic? — flier miles, it’s that there‘s not much point to being on the ground these days. (This idea would work better if being on a plane were actually enjoyable, but never mind.) America, in his opinion, is all used up. It’s no longer even a ruin. It‘s an imitation ruin. In one of the book’s best passages, he recounts a post-college cross-country tour inspired by Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. The experience was disappointing:
Nothing there. That America was finished. Too many movies had turned the deserts to sets. The all-night coffee shops served Egg Beaters. And everywhere, from dustiest Nebraska to swampiest Louisiana, folks were expecting us, the road-trip pilgrims. They sold us Route 66 T-shirts, and they took credit cards.
Ah yes, credit cards. Bingham’s having trouble there. An identity thief seems to be using one of his cards while moving from state to state and ringing up charges that don‘t quite match Bingham’s customer profile. Unless there‘s some mistake. Did Bingham purchase $1,500 worth of electronics in Salt Lake City recently? Did he spend $200 on flowers? Or was it the thief? The problem is, Bingham can’t remember. (”My fast-forward functions,“ he says, ”but my reverse is stuck.“) He also has a little problem with narcolepsy, and is convinced that he‘s being paged at various airports, spied on by Great West and pursued by MythTech, a sinister company that’s working on the commercial equivalent of the human genome project. There‘s also a mysterious piece of lost luggage in his life — or so Great West assures him.
All in all, Bingham’s life is so denatured that he might as well be hanging out in cyberspace. Call it Xtreme America — the corporate America that replicates like a virus, until the town you arrive in looks exactly like the one you just left, and everyone in it either seems robotic or slightly deranged. Reading this novel, particularly its passages describing Bingham‘s love of identical hotel rooms, I was strongly reminded of Christopher Isherwood’s musings on the subject of American hotel chains in his great novel A Single Man. To quote Isherwood, the kind of room Bingham lays his head in isn‘t
a room in an hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. There is only one: The Room. And it‘s a symbol — an advertisement in three dimensions — if you like — for our way of life.
And that way of life, Isherwood argues, is one in which we choose
to live in our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate. We sleep in symbolic bedrooms, eat symbolic meals, are symbolically entertained . . . Essentially we’re creatures of spirit. Our life is all in the mind.
Up in the Air could be regarded as an extended dramatization of Isherwood‘s argument for the American way of life, though bear in mind that Isherwood was basically kidding. ”I know of no pleasure more reliable,“ Bingham tells us, ”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 above the Pyramids.
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.