Book Review: Up In the Air by Walter Kirn

This morning I woke up bright and early and finished the novel Up in the Air by Walter Kirn. It at first moved kind of slowly but it gradually picked up pace.

The book is about this successful businessman named Ryan Bingham who works as a career transition counselor (CTC), which involves, at its core, assisting companies in downsizing their staff. He racks up all these frequent flier miles, gets first class on all the flights, and sleeps with all these beautiful women he meets (okay I might be exaggerating, but he doesn’t want to get married or settle because he loves living the high life). He meets this woman named Alex on a flight and they hit it off, but he’s wondering if she’s the one. Meanwhile, his family is worried for him because he’s rarely home since he’s traveling all the time. However, Ryan still seems justified in keeping up his lifestyle.

This novel is a work of psychological fiction, so we only get to really witness what happens in the book from Ryan’s point of view, no matter how pessimistic it is. I didn’t hate the book of course, I thought it was well written. I just wish I read it before seeing the movie, then I would have noticed what was different from the novel. For one thing, while George Clooney plays Ryan just as he was in the novel, the book seems to focus more on Ryan’s relationship to his sisters than it does in the movie. In the novel, Julie, Ryan’s sister, goes with him to the airport and we see how she worries about his constant traveling and how it exhausts her when for him, it’s just a part of his job. The film adaptation, from what I can remember (I saw it more than a year ago), focuses on Ryan’s business relationship with Natalie, his new hire, and how she is trying to digitize the career transition process.

The film will stick with me for the longest time because it made me understand that even though I have a great job, I need to always save up money in case something happens. Layoffs are a reality; I don’t care how good of an employee one is. The economy now is getting shakier even though people are divided on whether we’re going into a recession or not, and not everyone can afford to save money for emergencies because they have bills to pay and mouths to feed. But in those situations, it really does help to have money saved up. The film also showed how the job market is different and it’s rare nowadays for one person to hold the same job for 20-30 years like it was in the past. You have people job-hopping, you have people getting fired, and more people are turning to freelancing and working from home so that they don’t have to go into an office everyday. Skills are becoming more technologized, and just having a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough anymore; one has to major in something lucrative nowadays in order to make a six figure income (although it does help to become good in your craft if you want to become successful, even if that craft doesn’t always get a good rap in the job market. Speaking as a musician here).

The novel reminded me that job hunting is no fun and games. It can be a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and rejection after rejection. In the novel, Ryan explains CTC to Julie, and after his long explanation she tells him that he is trying to paint this job description as some sunshine and rainbows gig when it’s, at its core, talking idealistic nonsense to people who got fired. According to Ryan, CTC folks don’t do the actual firing and they don’t find them new jobs. Instead CTC means “coaching” them through the process of unemployment because as Ryan describes, job hunting is a job in and of itself. I agree with that, because I got rejected by 70 different jobs when searching for one after college, and not having a job took the life and self-esteem out of me (of course, had I been smarter, I would have driven up to that pancake house right after graduated to see if they were hiring. Darn it). Job searching requires patience, it truly does, Ryan isn’t lying about that. Doing self-assessments about your skill set and qualifications can be draining, too, because you are constantly having to look at yourself, both your strengths and your weaknesses.

However, in the film we don’t get to see how these people go through that process, only that they are depressed when they find out they are being let go. One lady tells Ryan and Natalie that she will jump off a cliff because she no longer has a job, and it’s revealed that she ended up doing so. I found the film dark, but the book was actually a lot darker. It’s almost like a corporate version of Catcher in the Rye; the protagonist sees life in a dark way, and it consumes him, affecting his relationships with everyone around him.

This book also made me think of what home and rootedness really means. Ryan thinks that everyone else doesn’t hold a strong sense of themselves when they travel, but that he has a strong sense of who he is even when he doesn’t have a home of his own. A guy in the book tells him he should own a home, and Ryan doesn’t take much interest in having a home or being settled because he’s used to the life that he has traveling and flying in first class. He doesn’t want to be rooted because to Ryan, that means he has lost his freedom. But like the characters in the novel Freedom, who have all this success but have these unhappy lives, Ryan still suffers because he is chained in by his ego. He won’t let go of this idea that he has to somehow rack up the most miles to feel the most important, he’s holding onto this idea that he is the best at everything and pity everyone else. In the film he tries to get Alex back, but finds out she is married with kids.

I’m too tired to finish this review, but the book was good. And the movie was great.

Up in the Air. Walter Kirn. 303 pp.

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