Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Up in the Air

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn
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Mar 11, 2010

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bookshelves: fiction, 2010, cover-love
Read in March, 2010 — I own a copy

Before you ask, no, I haven't seen the movie version that came out recently. I will, but as of this moment I haven't. I have had several people telling me about it though, and they made it sound so interesting, like such a clever satire of American corporate life and the emptiness of the modern business world, that I knew I wanted to read it. I was thrilled to find a copy of the pre-movie edition - I'm one of those people who really hates to get a book with a movie-poster cover. I really don't like them.

This is the story of Ryan Bingham. His job title is Career Transition Counselor - or CTC. His job is not to fire people, oh no, he's quick to point out the difference: his job is to help these downsized workers assess their skills, their strengths, figure out their next step and help them get the confidence to find a new job. Or, in other words, to make sure they leave quietly, quickly and hopefully with a smile. He's a kind of consultant, flying around the country to help a whole range of companies get rid of their flotsam. And he hates it.

His one goal is to reach 1 million frequent flyer miles. And he's close, so close he's becoming increasingly obsessed about it. He's timed it to the exact mile. His letter of resignation is sitting on his boss's desk, waiting for said boss to get back from his high-flying golfing trip, by which time he'll have flown his last flight and gained his 1 millionth mile. This final week is mostly personal for Ryan. He wants to think he's being head-hunted by MythTech, one of those ultra-modern companies led by a whiz-kid that doesn't actually produce anything - he's not sure what they do, only that he wants to work there.

He's also written a book, called The Garage, and is trying to pin down an errant publisher who says he's interested in publishing it. If only the guy would stop lying about where he is and stay put in one place long enough for Ryan to meet with him! Plus he has a business proposition for an old dinosaur legend of the corporate world, and he's due to give a seminar in Vegas.

Then there's his family: his younger, screwed-up sister is getting married, again, and now seems to have run away. Plus the wedding gift he sent her isn't the one he picked out, and it's starting to look like someone's using his credit card and even booking flights with his frequent flyer miles.

Ryan used to love Air World, but the polish is starting to come off. This last week, as he tries to escape the depressing fruitlessness of his job, is one scare after another. He just needs to stick to his goals, and get that last frequent flyer mile.

When I started this book, I fell instantly in love. Written in present tense, in Ryan's somewhat jaded, been-there-done-that voice - yet one that nevertheless can still take pleasure in small things - its dry humour and nostalgic wistfulness captivated me. This was a new world for me, a new perspective - as someone who loves visiting (or living in) other countries, I really don't like flying and spending time in airports. Ryan, on the other hand, loves it. He doesn't even have a home. His stuff is in storage and he gets his mail sent to his office: that's how much time he spends flying here there everywhere.

However, after the first third, everything started to get really slow, and my enthusiasm likewise dropped. I was having trouble following Ryan, and it only deteriorated from there. By the last hundred pages, I was struggling. Where is he? What's going on? Who's this again? It became even slower, and I was losing interest in what was happening to Ryan. It was still interesting, but like a long flight I got tired and was just looking forward to getting to the end.

As such, it was really disappointing. What was original writing at the beginning became confusing towards the end, and I was disappointed in the direction that the story took. It just didn't grab me, because there wasn't anything else. Even though the scenes with all the awful corporate businessmen and corporate gurus who, in real life, are disgusting figures of weakness to Ryan, are full of black humour (of the dreariest kind), and as a bleak depiction of the private business and just how many people and companies there are out there that don't do anything is quite excellent, the story became so depressing and full of the sharp stink of failure (as projected by Ryan - personally I don't buy into the whole success vs failure rhetoric that is so prevalent in societies like America), that I couldn't wait for it to end.

There's so much here to love, there really is. And maybe if I didn't have vague expectations based on what people told me about the movie, I would have been more receptive to that last third. This is the story of a man slowly going down the toilet, and letting himself go. After a while of weird things happening, I had to wonder, is he doing stuff in his sleep? Is he having a Fight Club moment, with another Ryan doing stuff without him realising? All his obsession over the head-hunting business, which people kept teasing him with, pretending they got a call from someone asking about him, and Ryan seeing signs and secret signals in everything - you had to wonder at his sanity. Like I said, I started out absolutely loving this book. I thought I would be raving about it. So it's hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem was, how I came to be so disappointed in it, especially since it's taken me a while to get around to writing this review so my memory's not so fresh.

I think maybe the constant moving around without explaining what was happening got to me (I got especially confused when he talked about flying to Ontario - turns out it's some city or suburb in California. And here I was looking forward to his trip to Canada!). I couldn't keep track or keep up. I was especially lost when he took his sister Julie for a jaunt. No idea what was going on there, truly. And then, I think, it just got so bleak and despairing. Ryan became an object of pity. It was hard to sympathise with him when you're just mentally shaking your head at him in this really sorrowful way.

Now I just want to see the film. Even from the ads I get the impression they shifted the focus somewhat, made it more ... graspable. That's not a word I know, but I'm getting desperate.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I want to read this book and see the movie. It looks cute! :)

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Now that I've read it, Manders, I really want to see the movie too. To be honest, from everything everyone's told me about the film, it sounds like it could be a better story!! (sacrilege I know!)

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Haha! I understand that. There are some stories that just translate better on film. :)

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Yes indeed. I think The Princess Bride and A Room with a View especially worked better as films! I'm really curious to see what/how much they changed for this one - the way people described it to me was different from how it reads, but maybe that's just what stuck out the most for them.

message 5: by Colleen (new)

Colleen I find it intersting that you read this after Catch-22. I've not read it, but the description of the obsession with frequent flyer miles and the black humor make me think there might be some interesting parallels there.

message 6: by Beth (new)

Beth Nice review, Shannon. It's interesting. The movie struck me as much more existential. I felt so bad for this man...the fruitlessness of his life. For me, it wasn't just about the hollowness of corporate America, but how this man makes sense of his role as "executioner" in that world. It was sad and poignant, how he grasped for higher meaning...and failed.

So yeah...I think movies can be better than books, when the stars are aligned just so. lol. It's so rare.

By the way, A Room with a View is one of my top one hundred books of all time, but the movie is on my top twenty list. Merchant Ivory, right? Brilliant. The Princess Bride is too, but I can't say I've ever read the book.

Cheers, Shannon.

message 7: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Interesting review, Shannon.

I didn't even know it was a book. I have the DVD at home right now and hope to see it either this or next weekend. (I get only 2 DVDs a month from Netflix.)

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Arian wrote: "I find it intersting that you read this after Catch-22. I've not read it, but the description of the obsession with frequent flyer miles and the black humor make me think there might be some intere..."

That's interesting Arian, I honestly hadn't thought of that. I'm not sure how strong the parallels are, but it definitely has a similar style of humour (more "real feeling, less zany/obvious though) especially in how these corporate types are portrayed, and how lost and slowly-going-crazy Ryan is. Yes, I'm seeing it now, thanks :D

Beth, see, that's exactly what got me interested in reading the book (I knew I'd miss the movie in the cinema); maybe you'd get more out of the book after seeing the movie? It just sounds like it has a sharper focus. I didn't get the feeling Ryan was trying to make sense of his job or look for higher meaning - he knew what it was, what he did, he knew it was awful, he hated himself, so he reconfigured it in his head to be a job he never wanted that he kind of fell into, that he'll do so he can get those 1 million frequent flyer miles. Which I suppose is another commentary on our society, if we take it as a kind of metaphor - the consumeristic things we'll sell our souls for? For sure, the ideas and themes in this novel are excellent.

Merchant Ivory yes - brilliant, yes! I grew up watching The Princess Bride but didn't get around to reading the book until my 20s - I really didn't like how it was written, the author's voice is so strong and so smug and "aren't I funny" in a not-funny way. Ugh.

Lisa, I'm going to see if it's out in the video shop this afternoon - I'm really looking forward to seeing it, even if I do want to compare!

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