There’s something wonderfully circular about the fact that Walter Kirn’s novel Up In The Air, originally published in 2001, is now a $7.99 airport paperback. Like the hit film version directed by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney, Kirn’s novel affectionately skewers the modern corporate mentality that thrives on airplanes, in airports or in airport “edge city” chain hotels. Hollywood has brought a literary novel to its intended audience.
The book is very different from the movie, of course. Date-flick fans who appreciated George Clooney’s gentle, sad Ryan Bingham may be disappointed to meet the book’s jittery and insecure hero. Admirers of the movie’s warm, loving tone may be put off by Walter Kirn’s distinctive DeLillo-esque chill. The plots are also different: there is no perky entry-level office foil in the novel, though there is a charming “Alex”, a slick boss, lots of people getting laid off, a kooky family heading for a wedding. But beyond the usual Jack Davis/Harvey Kurtzman transformations, the book and the film do converge on a basic message: what happens if we travel so much and so fast that we becomes disconnected from reality?
I have long appreciated Walter Kirn’s muscular book reviews for publications like New York Magazine and the New York Times Book Review. He’s arguably been more successful as a critic than as a novelist (though Up In The Air has happily changed this forever), and I hadn’t had a successful encounter with one of his novels before Up In The Air. Maybe I needed the George Clooney/Jason Reitman touch to help me understand the author’s purpose, because I now feel a much clearer understanding of what Walter Kirn’s novels are meant to be.
I asked Walter a few questions about some of the odder themes in the novel version of Up In The Air, and about the transition from book to film. Here’s are my questions and his responses — which may have been sent from an airplane, for all I know.
Levi: I’m intrigued that your critical voice is so different from your fictional voice. Your narrators evoke an anxiety and intellectual rootlessness that feels completely divorced from the sharp confidence of your book reviews. You are also obviously very well-versed in the history of literature, and yet the characters in Up In The Air seem to live in a world where literature doesn’t exist. Why is this?
Walter: Characters versed in the history of literature don’t interest me, because they tend to live their lives in an ironic, self-conscious manner — at second hand, so to speak, rather than in direct confrontation with the experiences and pressures facing them. I find it easier to make literature from their lives because they don’t do it themselves — not intentionally, at least. And though my tone in my reviewing and criticism may indeed show a certain confidence, I lack that confidence in my daily existence, as I suspect so many of us do.
Good stories, for me, are the result of people with a limited set of tools applying them to problems that can seem infinite, resulting in improvised, inventive solutions that may or may not prove successful or durable but represent, to me, a kind of heroic adaptability that I’m perpetually fascinated by and, at some level, amazed by, too. Their efforts and the resulting consequences are the stories that most compel me and seem to typify our common predicament: acting on what is always, despite the extent of one’s formal education, the limited, often mistaken information that all of us are required to build our lives from, with gloriously mixed results.
Levi: Up In The Air and The Unbinding both track the emotional demands of a hyperactive technology-enabled career. Is this one of your signature themes? Are you writing from personal experience when you write about these kinds of jobs?
Walter: One of my themes, which has chosen me rather than the other way around, is the gradual disappearance from our lives of connections to place, community, and home in the traditional senses of these terms. What intrigues me about technology is the way it dislocates and fragments people, obliging them to live in realms that are neither physical nor reliable but in which they must learn to function nonetheless.
It’s as though the course of recent history is causing us to leave the earth, in some ways, and even to separate ourselves from our own bodies and personal histories. People, as never before are learning to adopt what might be called “situational identities” whose nature varies according to the contexts they find themselves operating in, sometimes unwittingly, and to further goals that that don’t necessarily add up to one great aim or allow them to become what fiction writers once called “characters”, meaning beings of stable habits, fundamental attitudes, and overriding compulsions or concerns. We’re dissolving. In certain ways, we’re leaving the earth. And where that endeavor will land us is a mystery as profound, suspenseful, and significant as any I can think of.
Levi: The novel version of Up In The Air has a lot to say about invasive personal marketing, about corporations that spy and prey on unsuspecting consumers. Are you actually outraged by current practices in consumer marketing?
Walter: I’m not so much outraged by the consumer marketing industry as I am astonished by its arrogance in believing that people can be led, manipulated, and molded. To sell someone something, the seller must have some theory as to what makes human beings tick and what makes some of us tick differently than others. What a mad, imaginative and strange enterprise this constitutes, particularly when it seems to work. Add the reason it seems to work sometimes, I sense, is that consumers, individually and as groups, harbor some deep yearning to be known, or merely classified, with the promise of being acknowledged and gratified. We want or need, at some deep level, I think, to be customers and clients almost as passionately and earnestly as marketers want to turn us into them. It helps us answer the question of what we are in the absence of other, older ways of learning this.
Levi: I’d like to know more about the inspiration behind the corporation called “MythTech”. Is Google today’s MythTech?
Walter: Is Google MythTech? Well, it comes close, perhaps. In Up in the Air I played with the idea that the holy grail of modern business is to create a product that’s not just an object, not just a thing, but a way of being, a way of thinking, a process for making and distributing meaning, or a variety of meanings tailored to certain people or classes of people. In other words, I imagined industry cutting to the chase and, rather than fashioning and distributing goods that are imbued with certain mythologies, turning out mythologies themselves — or at least perfecting proprietary processes for directly addressing and our minds and souls rather than supplying them with trivial diversions and satisfactions.
Levi: I love the presence of Great Plains/Rocky Mountains America in Up In The Air. Do you consider yourself part of any regional literary tradition (Richard Brautigan? Jim Harrison?) in this sense?
Walter: I don’t consider myself a “western” writer in the usual manner, meaning that my chief preoccupations aren’t the land, its history, and its trademark types. To me, the west is mostly useful in fiction as the site of an experiment — an ongoing, very American experiment — whose aim is to start with mostly empty space and a scarcity of cultural power centers or established institutions and find a way to orient oneself in the absence of the firm guidelines they provide. People make themselves up out here, in other words. They make up provisional societies, too. I guess that’s just a way of saying the place is in flux, conspicuously and chronically, and flux is a dramatic state to dwell in, as well as one that’s fundamentally challenging, both to deal with, to observe, and to record.
Levi: I found George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham fairly harmonious with Walter Kirn’s Ryan Bingham, but the film was more tightly focused on questions of love and marriage than the novel. How do you feel about this difference, and about the other changes between the book and film versions?
Walter: Movies have to pick their battles, and they have to pick fewer of them than novels do — and engage in them in more single-minded ways. In the book, Ryan’s greatest love is not a person but a world, a milieu, a feeling he gets while traveling. He lives in the spaces that most of us detest, the standardized limbos of the traveling man, who is rarely here nor there but is always vividly present to himself and can count on the company of others like him and the services of those who cater to them. In the book, this “lifestyle”, to use a term I hate, has taken a certain, unspecified toll on him, which he feels but can’t explain. In the movie, he’s wholly comfortable with his choices, but in the book he senses the strains they’ve placed on him and is casting about for a remedy of some sort even as he sinks deeper into his obsessions and tries to explain their allure to the reader.
He’s trapped, but he’s not sure that he wants out; he’s stuck, but he wonders if perhaps the way he’s stuck isn’t a form of freedom compared to other ways. He’s also, in the book, fundamentally alone, without the young sidekick the movie gives him or the female equivalent of himself that he ultimately grows attached to but can’t assure that she’ll grow attached to him. The movie also concentrates on but one aspect of his professional life — laying people off — while setting aside his more constructive, creative, intellectual ambitions. Unlike the character in the movie, he’s ambivalent about his talent for cutting off people’s necks.
He’s good at his job, though not certain his job is good. He’s dazed and confused, so to speak, not smooth and steady. He’s also an unreliable narrator of a type that’s hard to show in movies. He may be crazier than he lets on, and at times he drops hints that he hiding this fear on purpose, in order to survive.
Levi: Will you continue to work with the Jason Reitman team, or with other filmmakers? Are you working on a new novel?
Walter: I’d count myself lucky, lucky beyond measure, to get to work with Jason Reitman again, who works harder, thinks more deeply, and cares more intensely about what he does than anyone in his field. But the truth is that, just as I got to work on Thumbsucker with a different sort of but equally gifted director, Mike Mills, I don’t write my novels as a means of seeing my stories on the big screen. That has happened by accident, and I’m grateful it has, not only because the works of art that have resulted are just that, works of art, but because writer-directors have an approach toward telling stories that fiction writers can learn from. Their craft is not an inferior craft by any means, nor is their thinking any less potent or nuanced.
My job — my only job, the way I see it — is to dedicate myself, with my whole being, to reflecting, animating, and discovering that in the world (and in my myself) that speaks most energetically of our remarkable situation her as beings who get just one shot — so far as we know — of accommodating a reality that we encounter through no act of will, must abide in without the assistance of a rule book, and are granted no clear vision of our progress through, or any guarantee that progress is possible, measurable, or what it would constitute assuming it were.
I’m with Shakespeare on this one: the play’s the thing. The only thing. But who we’re playing and what the script is — aside from our own lines and speeches, which we ad lib — are the questions that keep us playing at all. Which may be not only all we can do, but everything we must and should do. And yes, I’m writing a new novel, but no I can’t discuss it with any clarity because I don’t have any, I’m afraid. I write in the dark, in the hope a light will shine. And when it does — if it does — I’m always stunned.