Up in the Air , by Walter Kirn. Doubleday, 303 pages, $23.95.
John Henry Days , by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 389 pages, $24.95.
Here’s a curious case of literary overlap: Walter Kirn’s new novel, Up in the Air , is about a man obsessed with amassing one million frequent-flyer miles. Meanwhile, in Colson Whitehead’s ambitious new novel, John Henry Days , a journalist is “going for the record”–he’s on a junket jag, and so far he’s chalked up three months’ worth of all-expenses-paid publicity events, a solid streak of product placement, orchestrated hype and catered hors d’oeuvres.
It’s not unusual for two novels in the same season to zero in on marketing schemes–how corporate America sells and why we buy are inescapable topics–but in this case the overlap is accompanied by unusual twists. John Henry Days begins with a brief, impressively vivid description of an airplane trip, a radically condensed version of Mr. Kirn’s Up in the Air ; the title of Mr. Kirn’s novel even makes an appearance: Mr. Whitehead’s junketeer is “always up in the air.” As if to underscore the coincidence, Walter Kirn’s name appears on the back of John Henry Days ; his blurb–more marketing–offers a boost to Mr. Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist . Scary.
But scary coincidence is appropriate to two novels tinged with paranoia. Mr. Kirn’s narrator is fascinated by a shadowy consulting firm called MythTech that is purportedly at work on a comprehensive map of the code that makes business work: “You’ve heard of that human genome project? The human gene map? That’s what they’re after at MythTech, except with commerce. All the angles. All the combinations.” What’s worrying is the idea that “The market knows”–the mysterious movements of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” appear more sinister if there’s a brain attached. For his part, Mr. Whitehead imagines an all-powerful publicity firm with its fingers in every pie, “an interdisciplinary and gangster army of hype.” This publicity firm controls “the List,” a register of the junketeering journalists who can be relied on to present a product to the public. (I suppose it’s worth noting, before the paranoia buzz fades, that these two novels share a publisher, Doubleday, which is an imprint of Random House, which is owned by the mighty media colossus, Bertelsmann.)
Both Mr. Kirn and Mr. Whitehead are tapping into an anxiety spawned in the 20th century and destined to grow exponentially in the 21st: the fear that the relentless pursuit of profit will lead some unscrupulous corporate entity to perfect the science of manipulating consumer desire. Smart marketing scares us; it jeopardizes our sense of autonomy, our sense of self.
In both novels, the protagonist reacts to this threat by embracing consumer culture fervently and cynically. The idea is to be smarter than the market, always aware of its mechanisms, and yet consume with gusto. It’s the surrender of the defiantly savvy, a way of rebelling through obedience.
Ryan Bingham, the narrator of Up in the Air , has turned himself into an airline’s ideal passenger: “I’m everything they dream of in a customer.” He half-believes that the company is studying him, hoping to learn the secret of his loyalty. “If they could create, say, a thousand more of me, just think of the earnings. The market share.” Invasive corporate scrutiny doesn’t bother him–as long as he can think of himself as an insider, hip to hidden promotional strategies. He declares: “I know of no pleasure more reliable than consuming a great American brand against the backdrop featured in its advertising. Driving a Ford pickup down brown dirt roads. Swigging a Coke on the beach at Malibu. Flying Great West over central Colorado.”
Ryan shares with J. Sutter, the protagonist of John Henry Days , a visceral fear of being the dupe, the sucker who swallows the sales pitch. J., the junketeering journalist, once dreamed of becoming a crusading reporter and got an internship at “the Downtown News , the oldest and largest alternative weekly in the U.S. of A.” Young and idealistic when he started at the paper, J.–who is black, from a middle-class Manhattan family–saw journalism as an opportunity to express his outrage at racism. The internship doomed his illusions. He wanted to rail against inequality; his editors wanted headlines that would sell newspapers. Now, as a junketeer, J. has abandoned the idea of socially responsible journalism (the very phrase would make him smirk); he has reduced his “obligations” to this: “meeting the word count.”
We travel with J. down to Talcott, W.Va. The town has claimed ownership of the folk hero John Henry, the legendary railroad worker who “challenged a steam drill to a race and swung his hammers so hard that he beat the machine.” J.’s junket jag (“I’m going for the record”) is the sad modern counterpart to John Henry’s fabled heroism; the machine J. plans to beat is the vast commercial conspiracy that we buy into everyday–he calls it “pop.” Like Ryan Bingham, who’s eager to get a job with MythTech (“To be safe from them one must be one of them”), J. aims to beat the machine by joining it.
Neither Ryan Bingham nor J. Sutter is a bad man; they’re merely twisted into ugly shapes by the force of the market, by the hideous ubiquity of “pop.” Both Mr. Kirn and Mr. Whitehead offer their protagonists the opportunity for redemption, and in both cases the opportunity takes the shape of a woman (I’m simplifying, but that’s the gist). It’s a sentimental notion, but few of us can do without it: Love trumps irony and anomie. Or so we hope. Both authors string us along with the possibility of a “happy” ending, but they’re too canny to follow through–equivocal is the best we get.
Walter Kirn is a first-rate critic and a funny, sharp-eyed novelist (though he lacks confidence in himself as a writer of fiction; he fidgets and strains, he pushes too hard). Up in the Air is too long by a third, but it’s sophisticated and substantial entertainment. If he ever develops a storytelling talent to match his cleverness, Mr. Kirn could write dazzling novels.
Colson Whitehead has all of Mr. Kirn’s cleverness and more: a large and vibrant talent. In John Henry Days , he’s working on a huge canvas. The novel is uneven (whole sections fall flat), but its high points are dizzying. Here is J., marveling at what he calls “terminal city,” the web of look-alike airports that makes travel in America such a weirdly static experience: “It is safe in here. He watches his fellow shufflers queue before the gate attendants, who carve up the airplane cabin into certified tracts. This seems to him an orderly system, one of many in this concrete aviary. The giant brackets lulling the prefab sections of the terminal into peaceful aggregation, the charged and soothing simulated air, automatic flush urinals. He likes the new sound of cash registers, no more chimes: Instead this novel theater of validating purchases, the electronic scrying of purple ink across paper, that tiny pulse that reaches out to the network checking the credibility of credit cards. True, each foray through the metal detector still feels like a prison break and there is no stopping the animal jostling when boarding is announced or when the plane sidles up to the destination gate and all those grubby moist-toileted damp hands grope for the overhead compartment latches, but these are expressions of human weakness, no fault of the design of airports.”
This is the voice of a writer who is watching America carefully, gauging its triumphs with wary detachment, and choosing to root for human weakness.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.