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Up in the Air Paperback – September 24, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

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

Up in the Air is now a major motion picture starring George Clooney, Jason Bateman, and Anna Kendrick, and directed by Jason Reitman. Enjoy these images from the film, and click the thumbnails to see larger images.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (September 24, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385722370
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385722377
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #549,640 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

WALTER KIRN is a contributing editor to Time magazine, where he was nominated for a National Magazine Award in his first year, and a regular reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, Vogue, New York and Esquire. He is the author of four previous works of fiction: My Hard Bargain: Stories, She Needed Me, Thumbsucker, and Up in the Air. He lives in Livingston, Montana.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

86 of 94 people found the following review helpful By michael fowler on December 9, 2005
Format: Paperback
The neutral and even negative reviews on Amazon of this masterly novel are beyond comprehension. As someone who dwelt in cubicle Hades for a quarter of a century, and who now, at retirement, am still assessing the mental damage done to me, it is a pleasure to read the mother of all satires concerning team building, goals and objectives, win-win situations, addressing the problem and not the person, core competencies, consumer satisfaction and all the rest of the mind-rotting bilge that one had to pretend to take seriously in order to pick up one's pay. Kirn is laugh aloud funny on these travesties and more, including air travel, hotels, restaurants, Vegas, and even family values. The protagonist, Ryan, buys into huge amounts of new age business drivel, but a woman he once fired helps him ascend into the light. He is redeemed, in the end, only because his heart was never in the nonsense he does for a living, and because he is truly a nice guy, as the woman recognizes. He's also a gentleman, as is Kirn, who paints only men negatively in his book. Women, when they act out, are only trying to keep up or get even. Highly recommended.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Spencer Madsen on December 17, 2009
Format: Mass Market Paperback
After reading Kirn's Lost in the Meritocracy, I was excited to pick up Up in the Air. Forget the hype about the movie and clooney's acting; the book stands on its own, as does its protagonist Ryan Bingham. What makes this novel so inexplicably intriguing is its realistic portrayal of a life without a home, content in chain hotels, chain steak houses, chain airport restaurants and so on. As Bingham says, the aspects of travel we cringe at make him feel at home.

Kirn's philosophical voice is spoken through the mind of his protagonist; and Bingham, as a premise, is one interesting man. In his quest to reach one million frequent flier miles, and fulfill his job of motivational speaking and career transition counseling, he builds relationships with everyone in Air World he sees. That disconnect between what Bingham says and what Bingham thinks provides conflict and humor that other narration styles lose out on.

If you're looking for an action-backed book, look elsewhere. This novel is for those who find people more interesting than anything. Ominous conflicts, hilarious social interactions, a real portrayal of a fictitious character, all add up to a page-turning read of Up in the Air (Movie Tie-in Edition)
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35 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Christopher Buckley in the New York Times Book Review called Ryan Bingham, the narrator of 'Up in the Air', "a tragicomic fusion out of Martin Amis, Nicholson Baker and Jay McInerney on a good day". Uhhh, maybe, in as much as Bingham is a 35 year old postmodern man who's mildly out of his mind. But 'Up in the Air' is nowhere near as funny or as trenchant as the best work of that trio. In fact, Ryan Bingham reminded me most of the pre-bareknuckle Ed Norton character in 'Fight Club' (sorry, never read the book), with his talk of single-serving friends, his attachmentless existence and his fundamental dullness. The thing is, almost any single scene from that movie is funnier, edgier and more evocative than Kirn's novel.
This book really didn't work for me as satire and it certainly didn't do a very convincing job of describing a frequent flyer's relationship to the skies... there's really no attention to the details of what it's like to fly, and as a 200,000+ mile flyer myself, I can say that I pay a lot more attention to the equipment, history, business, sights and sounds of flying than Bingham seems to (maybe that's just me) and, unlike in Bingham's world, I know you can't fly to little cities all over the West without going through a hub airport at least once.
In short, Kirn's Airworld is an arid dystopian fantasyland -- but one that didn't say much to me about either flying or life as a young man in the American West.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Talmon on December 17, 2009
Format: Mass Market Paperback
As a fan of Walter Kirn's extensive contributive work to every fantastic periodical you can think of and of his books including his intriguing memoir "Lost in the Meritocracy", I was thrilled to learn I had somehow missed this work released at the unfortunate same time as the sept.11th attacks. What a fortunate turn for Jason Reitman to endure in his facination with Kirn's character of Ryan Bingham by selecting it to be developed to film. It was by my learning of the film's imminent release that I ordered and read it then. The central character is a self banished society outsider who imagines himself to float above the common man's labrynth of society systems and inter-personal ties by removing himself from the very ground that they walk on. By relinquishing all responsibilities as soon as they come upon him, he is a shiny snake with freshly shed skin ready to dazzle at every moment. Even when he lands to do business or attend to the tasks of getting laid or take care of family matters, the reader is aware he is not really there, with his mind and almost his body in the forward moving ether of "whats next and when do we leave for it?" After I became acclimated to the ghost state of this unattainable man, chasing his unattainable goal (a million frequent flyer miles) I then turned my attention to anything that would allow me to redeem him. And that's what hooked me. Being there to love and attend to his sister through her own struggles with commitment and her own self banishment by anorexia and Ryan's tender understanding of her were poignant. His thoughtfulness, appropriate consideration and even caring in the midst of matter of fact pursuit of women was almost attractive, but his insecurities and revealed self-awarenesses are what makes this "big ego, low self esteem" character endearing.Read more ›
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