The hero of Walter Kirn's novel Up in the Air
inhabits an entirely new state: Airworld, where the hometown paper is USA Today
, the indigenous cuisine wilts under heat lamps, and the citizenry speaks a Byzantine dialect of upgrades, expense accounts, and market share. Airworld even has its own nontaxable, inflation-free currency in the shape of bonus miles, which Ryan Bingham calls "private property in its purest form." Officially, Bingham is a management consultant, specializing in the lugubrious field of career transition counseling (i.e., he fires people for a living). But what Kirn's airborne protagonist is really
doing is pursuing his own private passion, his great white whale: accumulating one million miles in his frequent-flyer account. As Up in the Air
opens, Bingham has set out on a final, epic traveling jag. He intends to visit eight cities in six days, thereby achieving his own vision of Nirvana somewhere over Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Mocking the euphemisms of business speak is as easy as shooting fish in a designer barrel. But Kirn also takes on the corporate world's weirdly mystical and paranoid side, its rhetoric of personal empowerment and its messianic devotion to gurus. "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," declares Bingham. (This doesn't stop him from working on his own book about "the transformational journey of one mind wholly at peace with its core competencies.") Meanwhile, his junket becomes progressively more surreal, complete with an evil nemesis as well as a mysteriously powerful firm called MythTech that's working behind the scenes. And what's worse, someone seems to have stolen his identity, assuming control of his credit cards and his all-important miles.
Is this model consumer being tracked as he makes his purchasing decisions, like an elk tagged by wildlife biologists? Or is he merely losing his mind? The ending answers these questions perhaps a little too neatly, but Kirn's disturbing satire packs a mighty wallop nonetheless. The writing is as sharp as a tack, punctuated by character sketches as brilliant as they are quick. Bingham and his ilk are modern nomads, dispossessed of physicality but not quite of their bodies. His simulated environment is not mimicking an actual place but replacing it--and that, to the author, is the scariest part of Airworld: "This is the place to see America, not down there, where the show is almost over." --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
The message of Kirn's new novel is that the "dark Satanic mills" that power the capitalist system no longer run on the sweat of the laboring masses they are now fueled by the hot air of the therapeutic-industrial complex, that weird construct made of a thousand management strategy companies and their attendant conferences. In this world, being fired has been euphemized into "career transition." Ryan Bingham is a career transition counselor for a firm based in Denver. His ultimate goal is accumulating one million frequent flier miles, but he has a few other projects he hasn't told headquarters about. He's written a business allegory, for one thing, which he hopes to place with a management science publisher. He also wants to market Sandor Pinter, a Peter Drucker-like management guru, through posters, coffee cups and the usual familiar detritus of pop culture. His most important and hush-hush project is to jump ship to MythTech, a mysterious Omaha company renowned for its esoteric management consulting. On the periphery of Ryan's consciousness is his sister Julie's upcoming wedding, but his disconnection from his family is evident. Kirn is trying to create the New Economy Babbitt, the perpetual haunter of first class and airport bars. Unfortunately, Ryan is not only an uninteresting character, bloated, shallow and incorrigibly explicative tell (and tell and tell...), not show, seems to be his motto but is uninterested in others. Crowding the page, he smothers Kirn's bursts of astringent humor and obscures any broader perspective on 21st-century corporate culture. (July)Forecast: Much will be expected of this novel by the literary editor of GQ and the author of the New York Times Notable novel Thumbsucker. Media world curiosity and the appeal of the book's subject matter to corporate management masses may generate respectable sales, but no more this is not one of Kirn's better efforts.
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