First-class stranger |

First-class stranger

Matt Zalaznick

The main character would decide a little swimming couldn’t hurt, ponder the thundering meaninglessness of it all on the way to beach, resign himself to that futility while splashing in the relentlessly crashing Algerian waves and then just as likely commit suicide as not.

What’s the point, either way?

But in the poignantly altered TV version, the main character, on the verge of one final plunge, would burst into tears when he confesses to the ravishing young female lifeguard – whom he knows because he swims everyday –that his existentialist brooding was all a bunch of misguided, neurological static caused by a brain tumor that may just still be treatable.

Then they hold hands. Happily, her brother is the most renowned neuro-oncologist in Oran.

There’s no brain tumor in Walter Kirn’s frequent-flyer opus, “Up in the Air,” but that’s the kind of literary letdown one gets from reading the highly-acclaimed novel that’s about as brief as a bag of airplane peanuts –though somewhat more nourishing.

The main character is Ryan Bingham, a smug 30-something who works in Career Transition Counseling for a large consulting firm –he fires people, in other words. But by the time we meet him, he is on a tightly scheduled six-day business trip and at the end of his rope, sustained mostly by his goal of achieving a million frequent flier miles on the regional airline he flies around the western United States.

He’s got a few other things to live for. He’s got a potentially plagiarized book on ingenuity and individualism that’s being reviewed by an even snottier commercial publisher. He’s also got a doomed get-rich-quick scheme to canonize his mentor in the consulting world by wallpapering offices with the man’s image and piping his wisdom through intercom systems.

And he’s desperate to get a job with the shadowy, cutting-edge consulting firm he thinks has been monitoring his every move.

Bingham is not particularly likable. He’s self-centered to the point of claustrophobia, but unlike Camus’ stranger, he is frustratingly numbed to his cosmic malaise. His world view is about as sweeping as the heavily-sanitized, in-flight buddy flick starring Pauly Shore and Woody Harrelson.

Therefore, his contact with other human beings –his irritation with his family, his random and stunted romantic involvements, his distrust of his co-workers – is corroded, flimsy or completely severed.

Bingham is connected to the world in the same way a person flying alone is connected to his or her fellow plane-travelers. They are faces you can invent stories about but they are strangers. They are faces –the faceless backs of heads, more often – that fill your field of vision for a few hours as you’re hurtling at several hundred miles per hour, several miles above the blurry earth.

But Bingham has his survival instincts. To survive in his world, Bingham is – and has to be – talkative. He doesn’t bury himself in a book or crossword puzzle during his trips –he chats up the people trying to bury themselves in books and crossword puzzles. Of course, though they are congenial, his relationships with the people in the next seat are not the kind that sustains the soul. These are not people he can call up when he is sad and lonely in some non-descript hotel room in eastern Nevada.

And even in the rare instances where his contacts with other people continue beyond the jetway, it’s nearly impossible for Bingham to make any lasting, substantive connections to people whose feet are on the ground more often that not.

He evens falls in with a woman whose balance on solid ground is just a little less tenuous than his. He picks her up – of course – on a plane ride, noticing her self-consciously ugly glasses. But he takes what appears to be a liking to her, though the cynical spark that simmers between them hardly seems that affectionate.

It turns out he once fired her and their drug-addled night together ends squalidly, with Bingham entering her hotel room and presuming the woman has committed suicide because he has shown up late. She wakes up mid-911 call and lays into him for his staggering solipsism.

But, as he does with every other seemingly traumatic conflict, Bingham brushes her fury off. So what? He’s got his one million miles to accumulate.

That’s how, as a narrative technique, his eternally-away-on-business status as a frequent flier works. It is where Kirn undermines his hero’s conceited detachment and astounding obliviousness. Unlike some authors – Richard Ford, for example – Kirn appears to be siding with us in lamenting how badly his anethetisizeed headhunter is ignoring both his alienation and the fact that, sooner or later, it’s probably going to clobber him.

Bingham is a headhunter –a shark, perhaps. If he stops moving he may not die but there are likely to be unpleasant consequences. He may be forced into a relationship that demands more than the occasional glance or anxious phone call. But, forever homeless, he is doomed to pass through the people’s lives like the cities he hurries through.

And as things start to unravel on his climactic journey, he begins taking short trips away from himself –he starts blacking out as the cities and days blend into one another.

Now, existentialist characters are – by definition – aloof, cold and even a little wishy-washy. But Bingham is such a blank slate, seemingly has so little invested in anything – even his own hopes and dreams –that it’s hard to be captivated by his detachment.

It’s his very impenetrable aloofness that takes the real, visceral bite out of his exasperation. We couldn’t wind up in his position because –whether stunningly successful, satisfied or suicidal –we could never be as soulless as Bingham. We could never be such an empty vessel.

Camus’ stranger, as detached as he was – even more profoundly than Bingham, perhaps – seemed to have something at stake. The stranger knows he could at least pretend like the world swarming around him means something.

And this is where the ambitious Kirn misses his connecting flight. Perhaps he’s saying the modern world –and the headlong speed at which it propels the upwardly mobile—makes us all non-stick nobodies, terminally obtuse frequent-fliers with nothing to gather but airport tags on our garment bags.

Whether Bingham decides to come to rest or not once he reaches his milestone seems irrelevant. There’s nothing in the 300 pages of self-serving simmering that leads us to believe Bingham’s life on solid ground will be any less claustrophobic and adrift. So, like Bingham, why should we hope for him to come down, whether he does gently, bumpily or in flames?

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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