Reading Walter Kirn’s new novel Up in the Air before our world’s recent events would have been a different experience. A pithy satire, the book opens up for us the world of Ryan Bingham, a thirtysomething corporate consultant whose raison d’être is to achieve a million miles as a frequent flier. Instead of hating the life of living out of a small suitcase on wheels, eating identical meals at identical national food chains under the dim lights of one airport after another, and rushing about like a mouse in a maze from one boarding gate to another, he lives for it. Ryan Bingham absolutely loves his life in “Airworld.”
Before Sept. 11, 2001, we would have laughed heartily at this ironic world. We would have grinned to ourselves at this peculiar man who—like many other Americans in today’s world—has a mortal fear of having to think his own thoughts for more than 12 seconds at a time or make a true, fragile connection with another human being. Instead, he is in his element when he has e-mails to answer, cell phone calls to make, Palm Pilot notes to scribble in crooked, half characters. On the moving sidewalk of Airworld, he can keep rushing, running, flashing his frequent flyer medallion, boarding and deplaning, going, going, going … avoiding having to find out who he really is.
“When the book was first reviewed, it was referred to as a ‘biting satire,’ as a ‘dystopia.’ It was considered cynical and corrosive, a wide-eyed look at the sterility of that world,” Kirn told the Independent last week. “Now, after what happened in New York and Washington, it’s hard not to look at it like a utopia. No longer can we regard flying and frequent air travel in the same way. Looking back, it seems that the golden age of flying has ended. Ended abruptly. It’s no longer cozy, sepia-toned. Now what we imagine are gun-wielding, dog-sniffing places of danger.”
While on a national book tour for a previous novel, Kirn began his research for Up in the Air.
“I started writing and taking notes while on airplanes. There is something about the light on an airplane, the air, the vacuum of that world that is hard to capture when you’re not there,” he says. Kirn would find himself describing the passenger across the aisle, quickly recounting a conversation he’d had with his seatmate the minute he got up to use the bathroom, slipping slowly into the wash-and-wear business suit of Ryan Bingham.
“I met a lot of guys who said that while they were leading this busy business-travel kind of life they would complain about it. It was a hassle, they were always tired, they could never get together with their girlfriends, that kind of thing,” he says. “But they said that when they stopped, they’d really missed it. Up in ‘Airworld,’ they could anticipate everything, they didn’t have to answer to anyone, they had excuses for avoiding their bosses, their wives.” Another irony of Kirn’s book has only now been revealed: Up in the Air is the story of a guy who finds security in constant motion, security in the air. As many gadgets and fancy wireless connections as he has, he feels safe knowing that he is out of touch, off the ground, able at any time to run off, wave a curt good-bye, disconnect.
Kirn, who grew up in the Midwest, was a New Yorker for more than eight years. Currently, he lives in Livingston with his wife and children and is the literary editor for GQ and a contributing editor to Time and Vanity Fair, among others. Though never a big frequent flier himself, he understands the mentality of someone like Ryan Bingham.
“No one wants to admit it, but we all cling to our ranking systems,” he says. “Once you’ve had a taste, it’s hard to go back.” Who, after all, wants to return to economy class once they’ve been pampered in first class? Who wants to rent a breadbox of a car when they can have a big deluxe number with plush leather seats that heat or cool with the touch of a button? Who wants instant coffee once they’ve tasted the cumulus clouds of a frothy grande latte? Though we are all hate to admit it, few of us are willing to “downgrade.” Kirn wasn’t thinking about bombs or explosions or terrorists wielding box cutters when he wrote his book. “I actually wrote a chapter involving a bomb and a hijacking, but I tossed it,” he says. “It seemed so contrived, so dated, so ’70s.” Kirn, who is a lapsed Mormon and has written a great deal on the subject of cults, says he believes that the recent terrorist attacks have more to do with cultism than religious fanaticism. “I think all of this is not about Islam or religion. I think it is more about mass death, about actions taken that revolve around a charismatic leader.”
Feeling the pull of his tether to New York City with a different pressure, Kirn says that although he feels rather isolated in Montana in the wake of recent events, he also sees great change.
“I think the government will change over this. Groups that once hated each other, or disagreed diametrically, are now coming together. A lot of divisions and hostilities between groups that have been maintained by politicians for their own power base will dissolve. This is possibly a very redemptive time,” he says.
At the end of Up in the Air we do not know what kind of life Ryan Bingham will lead after he attains his frenetic goal of being Great West Airline’s tenth one-million miler, but we are left, like Kirn, hoping that these recent events will serve as a wake-up call, an opportunity to reassess ourselves. After watching the twin monoliths falter then disappear in a cloud of roiling smoke, a section of the Pentagon redden and burst, planes and bodies plummet from the sky, we wonder—if not now—when we will ever go forward with new affinities, with true, selfless compassion.