Luminous Airplanes

Until now, novelist Paul La Farge has been known as the stylish perpetrator of a literary Piltdown Man — Paul Poissel, an early-twentieth-century Frenchman whom La Farge invented to “write” Haussmann, or the Distinction, an excellent novel about the nineteenth-century Parisian city planner, and The Facts of Winter, a small collection of dreams by various French citizens. La Farge pretended to be the translator of Poissel’s books and commented on them. They, along with La Farge’s first novel — The Artist of the Missing, set in an unnamed city with both lamplighters and automobiles — combine elements of Proustian recollection, Borgesian antiquarianism, and Nabokovian trickery.

Out of these high literary clouds, Luminous Airplanes, like the aircraft on its cover, bursts into the solid American present with, by comparison, the rather commonplace story of a thirty-year-old San Francisco computer programmer who travels to Thebes, a small town in the Catskills, to clear out his dead grandfather’s overstuffed house. The unnamed narrator’s return to the locale where he spent summer vacations as a boy instigates two conventional plot lines: he pursues his adolescent crush, the Turkish woman Yesim who still lives next door, and searches for revelations about his dead father, who abandoned the narrator’s mother before he was born.

In place of the usually charming (and occasionally precious) artifice of La Farge’s earlier books, Luminous Airplanes substitutes the cognitive realism of a narrator who believes he suffers from a condition resembling ADD, a hyperconsciousness of marginal or overlooked or lost experiences. A former graduate student in history who never finished his dissertation, the narrator mostly observes chronology while telling his story, but his tropism toward past events and his attraction to random perceptions lead to numerous digressions. Fortunately, they sometimes turn out to be more interesting — more offbeat and stylistically rewarding — than his account of relations with the troubled Yesim, his reconstructions of his rogue father, the coming-of-age story that eventually emerges, and his portrait of San Francisco in the dot-com era.

Many of the narrator’s thoughts loop around the subject of failure: he reads a book about impossible aeronautical experiments, discusses the failed transcendence of the Millerite doomsday sect, analyzes the career shortcomings of his two “mothers” (his actual mother and her twin sister, who raise him), and lists his psychological and social inadequacies. About these failures he wonders why he fails to understand them. While pondering these less than Sphinx-like riddles in Thebes, he misunderstands Yesim and manages only continually revised understandings of his father.

La Farge’s two earlier novels were about large cities and artist figures who attempted to transform them. In Luminous Airplanes La Farge has reduced his purview, not just to a few weeks in a small invented town but also to more insistently personal and epistemological matters, perhaps to represent his generation’s narcissism or its presumptions that massive information will lead to valuable knowledge. Although the narrator’s digressions (such as two about weather modification) occasionally touch on the larger world, what there is of plot remains narrow. Whether or not the narrator will respond to increasingly serious demands to become a person who is “solid” (a key word in the book), rather than a “floater” or a “ghost,” gives his last fifty pages some emotional intensity and drive, but the novel’s conclusion seems truncated, forced, somehow failed.

That failure or intended illusion of failure is one reason why the book Luminous Airplanes continues as a hypertext online at Just after the narrator finished writing the book, he says in the hypertext, he lost a loved one in the events of 9/11. This loss and new disappointments in his personal life, as well as his belief that much was left out of his completed book, lead the narrator to continue with what he first calls a blog, his editor labels an “immersive text,” and La Farge terms a “hyperromance.”  This terminological variation is one small indicator of the multiple, seemingly simultaneous pathways of the hypertext, the perfect form for the narrator’s skip-and-link consciousness as it creates what Jacques Derrida theorized as a “dangerous supplement,” an addition that threatens to enfold and undermine the “original.”  

Readers of “solid” books, though, may find the hunt-and-click method too much like flying into a “digital cloud” of unknowing. I found the hypertext more artful — more appropriate to the narrator’s character and his rather mundane style, more fitting for La Farge’s themes of mutability and transcendence — than the text. (But consider this full disclosure: I did something similar, though more modest, in a website ( that supplemented two of my own novels.

The backstories in the hypertext — tales from the narrator’s youth, his time at Bleak College (Yale), drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in San Francisco — and many of the post-stories — his mourning after 9/11, his depression and thoughts of suicide, his stultifying job at Infinite Copy in New Haven — are no more compelling than the Thebes story. But a wonderful set of pages on spelunking, the act of exploring as a reader, and La Farge’s collection of other explorers — which includes a lengthy novella (Summerland) about a nineteenth-century collector of Native American skulls, a section on “Lost Aviators,” a searcher for Atlantis, and spelunkers from the narrator’s past and present — make the hypertext more vigorous, vivid, and profound than the book.
Also contributing to the hypertext’s paradoxical solidity (paradoxical because Internet pages disappear when offscreen) are confessedly Sebaldian photographs, illustrative sketches, and color codes that identify the settings of various sections. Even La Farge’s meta-discussions of hypertext and his precursors in the form have surprising spark.”

The hypertext may seem “a world of words without end.”  And, of course, La Farge can keep adding to the site after his novel is released, long after it is remaindered. But there is one practical catch: although the hypertext promises to include a modified version of the whole book, the free online supplement will probably be just too chaotic for anyone who doesn’t purchase Luminous Airplanes. As a two-for-one deal, the book seems a good buy, particularly for someone interested in possibilities for novels after the trees have all been cut down. But be warned — you may sometimes resemble the puzzled spelunker in the photo La Farge uses to mark dead ends.