Up in the Air, Walter Kirn

Anchor, 2009 movie tie-in reprint of 2001 original, 362 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-307-47629-6

How unfair it is to base a book review on comparisons between the novel and its movie adaptation.

But since I do it all the time, I might as well defend the practice.  Once the movie exists, it’s almost a sure bet that more people will see the film during its theatrical run alone than the book has had readers.* So it’s likely that anyone reading the review of the book will be reasonably familiar with the film.  But numbers aside, comparisons between original and adaption is usually a good way to get to the essence of a book: By looking at what was kept and what was left off, we can slice thinner in terms of what was at the essence of the story.

At least that what I keep telling myself when furious authors do drive-by bookings of my house.

In the case of Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air, the 2009 movie adaptation amounted to nothing short of a resurrection.  First published in 2001 to fair reviews and reportedly low sales, Up in the Air had long faded away by the time Jason Reitman adapted and directed the Oscar-nominated big-screen adaptation.  Now available in two varieties of paperbacks as well as audio and electronic versions, Up in the Air is back to be appreciated by a brand-new public.  Kirn may have had a bit of trouble getting tickets to the Oscars, but let’s hope his agent was able to negotiate some nice royalties for the movie tie-in re-editions.

The bare bones of the book’s premise remain more or less intact in the movie: Ryan Bingham is an executive with a lifestyle optimized for constant air travel.  Taking planes more often than other people take the bus, Bingham is collecting air-miles and shunning meaningful human contact.  While the movie insists on making Bingham an active professional downsizer, that’s only one of the many jobs the book’s Bingham has accumulated in his nebulous career as an all-purpose business executive.  But what the book has that the film doesn’t is a mysterious employer who may or may not be trying to recruit Bingham, threatening packages that may or may not be from Bingham’s enemies, strange transactions that may or may not mean ongoing identity theft, and a heavier emphasis on the fact that Bingham is stone-cold crazy.

This last aspect is particularly fascinating, because while from the outside Bingham is a successful man (even describing his high-flying always-on-the-go jet-setter lifestyle sounds synonymous with success), his narration reveals that he is addicted to all sorts of cheap business therapy gimmicks.  He increases his vocabulary artificially; he wants to market the advice of a guru with cheap promotional products; he has high hopes for the business inspiration book he’s writing, but even that may not be wholly sane.  Underneath the suit, Kirn’s Bingham is a massive void of insecurity.  (The film’s Bingham, played by George Clooney, has massive issues of his own, but he owns up to his faults and can only be criticized for following his obsessions too single-mindedly.)  Plane novels inevitably end up featuring a crash, but the one that awaits the reader at the very end of Up in the Air does not involve machinery.

Spending a few hundred pages in a universe narrated and explained by such a mind is an experience that’s worth a read by itself.  Seeing everything in terms of efficiency, air miles, commuter routes and a mild loathing for his fellow human beings, Bingham tells the story in a way that will please fans of Chuck Palahniuk and other hip big-boy writers.  Clipped present-tense narration: Go up in Tulsa; land in Denver.  Negotiate a car rental deal thanks to a privileged customer account.  Find a chain restaurant that serves the same meal across America.  Do the job.  Move on.

What’s less enjoyable is that Kirn would rather leave things unresolved than hand a victory of sorts to his narrator.  Up in the Air is an exercise in deliberate futility as the leads pursued by Bingham nearly all dissolve in smoke.  The accumulation of shaggy-dog endings at the end, coupled with one last revelation about Bingham that leaves readers, well, up in the air, doesn’t do much to close the deal set up by the book’s first two-third.

But as a take on modern life as seen by a businessman, Up in the Air has a number of strong moments.  It’s a different, far less sentimental work than the movie.  As a ten-year-old novel then set at the cutting edge of modernity, it hasn’t aged all that much, even though one suspects that 2010’s Bingham would make a bit more use of portable electronic devices.  And while not entirely successful thanks to its last-minute lack of narrative closure, it nonetheless offers a memorable portrait of a unique character.  It’s probably best not to read Up in the Air for its plot, but for the voice of its narration, and the plethora of small details and quips that Bingham is so generous in sharing.  For viewers of the film, it will be as good an experience; they will be amazed at how lines in one context of the film will appear in an entirely different context in the book.  But what’s more, they will be reminded that all novels are their own creation.

*: Let’s crunch a few numbers to bolster that common assertion: Movie studios always report box-office results in dollars, never in tickets sold.  Nonetheless, we know that the average movie ticket price in 2009 was $7.50.  We also know that the hundredth top-grossing film of 2009 (which I’m using as median for “people only hear about 200 movies per year, or four new films per week”) made $25,450,527: This translates into roughly 3.4 million viewers, and that’s only for the theatrical run, without including DVD rentals and various TV viewings that accumulate over the life of the film –and in today’s audiovisual universe, DVD sales are big money!  (The 150th movie on the list of 2009 theatrical top-grossers, The Road, made $8,104,518 or a “mere” 1.1 million entries.  At the upper end of the scale, #2 film Transformers 2 made 400 million dollars and sold 53 million tickets, or roughly one ticket for every six humans in North America.)  Book data is a lot harder to obtain, but news reports told us that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol had shattered all sales records for adult fiction by selling a whopping two million copies in two weeks, with a total first printing of five million copies.  That too doesn’t include backlist, library and second-hand sales for the duration of the book’s life.  Nonetheless… the math clearly shows that when it comes to books versus movies, most people familiar with the story have seen the movie rather than read the book.  Now you know why authors will grab the film option money and hope for the best.)

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