Monday, January 4, 2010
When Walter Kirn released his novel to mediocre reviews, it was September 5, 2001. Six days later, the whole world changed.
His book makes air travel a metaphor for modern life. It is a bona fide subculture, whose members know themselves and each other, but rarely by name. If we are not card-carrying members ourselves, we all know someone who is. These high altitude, high speed jet-setters live in a world of anonymity, detached and unfettered, except for their loyalty to aircrews and private lounges, reserved for those who have accumulated enough of airline currency to gain entrance and revel in the perks of warm baked cookies, overstuffed seating, free WiFi and drinks, all compliments of hard earned frequent flier miles. The book’s protagonist, Ryan Bingham, calls bonus miles “private property in its purest form.” They are non-taxable. Inflation-proof. An intriguing badge of success; a peculiar brand of conspicuous consumption. The Holy Grail for the seasoned road warrior.
“Where do you live?” a fellow first-class passenger asks Bingham.
“Here.” Bingham answers with a nod and a grin from his upgraded wide seat paid for by miles. He’s not joking.
When Kirn’s 2001 book became the basis of a new hit movie in 2009, some updating was required. The main character, Bingham, kept his original job. His “core competency” as a “transition specialist” (that is to say he is a hired gun who fires people) remains the same. But in a post 9-11 world, air travel has been transformed by high volume, intrusive security measures. The pre-board screenings were a minor part of the story in the book, but became a high profile focal point in the movie. The economy jittered at the turn of the century, but the fiscal earthquake hit only recently. Downsizing was a profit making strategy for corporate mergers and takeovers then. Now, downsizing is a global tsunami. Kirn’s Ryan Bingham was a nuisance then. Now, he is everyone’s nightmare. The part was made for George Clooney – the amiable Dr. Doom.
Up In The Air is a film for our times. Our mobility has wrenched us away from meaningful, human connectedness. The corporation’s promise of long-term security has gone bust. The glamour of air travel has been reduced to mass transit. A new digital generation views the Internet as a global cure-all. Casual encounters as common as movies on demand.
Two women invade Bingham’s over-managed world. Alex is as detached as he; just as cynical, self-absorbed and quick-witted. She is a match to Ryan’s untethered, nomad existence. The other, Natalie, fresh out of graduate school, tackles corporate challenges as though she is competing in the boardroom, doing whatever it takes to avoid getting fired by Donald Trump. But she is all brains and no know-how. An “A” student with no experience. Equipped with rapid-fire charm and a thorough business plan, she convinces Ryan’s boss to go digital – meeting with clients via videoconference feed rather than in person. This will save the company millions in airfare, hotels, car rentals and per-diems. The call centers can originate anywhere. This paradigm shift, of course, threatens to render Ryan’s obsession to accumulate mileage points, not to mention those five star hotels and fine restaurants, an exercise in futility.
Ryan surprises himself by inviting Alex to join him for his sister’s wedding in Northern Wisconsin (not far from where I married Carolyn). Alex surprises him by accepting. Ryan’s family is hilariously dysfunctional; but it is family. The entire pre-wedding scene is the complete antithesis of the life Ryan leads. It is Lake Woebegone all over again. Uncharacteristically, Ryan and Alex are irresistibly drawn in; you can’t buy this with frequent flier miles.
To everyone’s shock and dismay, the groom gets last minute “cold feet.” Hours before the scheduled nuptials, Ryan is recruited to convince the groom to go ahead and marry his sister as planned. At first, he declines. Ryan has little regard for marriage as an institution. He offers every excuse in the book. But because he the most skilled negotiator in town, and because he just cannot resist the challenge, he reluctantly sits down with the young groom, Jim, for a pre-marital counseling session. Man to man.
“You know, I was just thinking,” Jim says. Fidgeting. Staring at the floor.
“Yeah. Tell me,” says Ryan.
“Well… first you’re born. No one asks your permission. Ya sit in a boring classroom all those years. And then you think you are an adult. You get a job. You get married. You get a house payment and a car payment. You go to work in the morning. You come home at night. Then there are kids. Then they grow up, and they do the same thing you did. And then you get old. You get sick. They put you in a senior center. And then you die.” Jim pauses, tux and no tie, collar open, and keeps his gaze on the floor.
“Yeah?” Ryan asks.
“So what’s the point?” Jim wants to know.
Ryan stares out the window. They sit on small chairs in a Lutheran Sunday School class room. Ryan is the king of the comeback. But this one seems to stump him.
“Jim,” Ryan finally speaks. “There is no point.”
Their eyes finally meet.
“Marry the girl,” Ryan advises.
It is a turning point for Jim. But for Ryan, too. Up until now, there was no point. But it’s this moment of warmth and family and commitment and relationship that is a tipping point for the calculating Ryan Bingham. Maybe there is a point after all.
I won’t spoil the rest.
But as we begin another year, we are all up in the air. Our high altitude, high speed, obsessive soaring in an endless rainbow chase is behind us now. Our hot pursuit of frequent flier miles has left us empty handed. If you have sat across the table, as I have, from the man wielding the axe, you’ll connect with those scenes played by real life folks who have lost their jobs. It is painful. Disorienting. But it is not an end. It is a beginning.
So, when Ryan flatly states to his soon-to-be brother-in-law Jim, “there is no point,” he is mistaken.
Now that we are back on the ground again, with a New Year ahead, what we have left is a Wisconsin wedding. And with that, who needs bonus miles?
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp