Later this month, Paul La Farge will publish his fourth book, Luminous Airplanes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $25.00), a novel of fewer than 250 pages of words on paper but quite a bit more than that on a website specially designed to extend the story, with new chapters continually added over the next year or so. By the time it’s done, the site will contain a work “about three times larger than the book,” according to Mr. La Farge, who discussed the project with The Observer over email.
Mr. La Farge has always been something of a trickster. His previous three books featured various intellectual and stylistic conceits, like narratives of dreams in both English and French, relief-block illustrations, and the earnestly presented (if transparently false) notion that Mr. La Farge had translated a text rather than written it himself. Luminous Airplanes, as you will find it in a three-dimensional bookstore, is a departure from such experimentation. Set in San Francisco and upstate New York near the turn of the millennium, it’s full of incident but largely old-fashioned in its telling. The narrator is a young computer programmer pulled away from California at the height of the dot-com bubble to sift through his recently deceased grandfather’s house in the fictional upstate town of Thebes, N.Y.
The book’s episodes in the Catskills wouldn’t be out of place in a Richard Russo novel, and the evocation of the dot-com era captures the zeitgeist without strangling it to death, lacking the heavy-handed cultural signposting of, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Having been raised in Thebes by his mother and her sister (he refers to them as “my mothers”), the narrator is spurred to remember his upbringing and the mysterious story of his father, a lawyer with a rebellious streak who came through town in the 1960s and then disappeared. He also happens upon Yesim, a Turkish-American childhood flame who may or may not be reigniting, and spends time flipping through a book his grandfather read to him when he was a child: Progress in Flying Machines, a real-life book published in 1894, a “catalog of failures” that extensively detailed experiments in human flight up to that time. The ungainly flying contraptions are one of several elements in Luminous Airplanes that subtly speak to the tragedy of visionaries, the way their ideas can inspire and enchant but still be wrong or dangerous or simply and sadly lost forever. Imagining the fate of his grandfather’s books, and all the ideas inside them, the narrator writes: “More likely the books would be pulped. They would dissolve in a slurry of acids, fall fiber from fiber, until not a word of their advice remained, then they would be put together again in a new shape, cradling white, unbroken eggs.”
The online material takes this already kaleidoscopic story many steps further. It includes extensions of scenes from the book, and also follows the story into the future. From the new material that’s already up, it’s clear that Mr. La Farge’s more playful side is running free online, collapsing the space between the reader and the narrator, who is now very self-consciously addressing us.
Clicking “help” on the website, for example, you find a passage that starts like this: “My god, you think you need help? You’re not the one sitting in his room in New Haven, Connecticut, right now, wondering what the hell happened to your life.” Elsewhere, the narrator bristles at the idea that his tributaries of text are comparable to the Choose Your Own Adventure series: “Every time I tell someone that I am working on a hypertext that branches in many different directions, they say, ‘Oh, like those books where you turn to page 45 if you open the treasure chest.’” This tone is jarringly different from the book, where the narrator is more confessional at some points than at others, but mostly has a traditional, sealed-off relationship to the reader.
“Direct address seemed like a natural way to proceed [online],” Mr. La Farge said, “because there are fewer layers between the writer and the reader—no editor, no publisher, no bookstore, just a kind of screen-to-screen contact, or at least the fantasy thereof.” Whether that address comfortably fits with the rest of the work, time will tell, but it makes clear that the website is not just a dump for B-roll footage; it’s a project all its own, distinct from the bound pages.
Mr. La Farge is launching his novel’s website against an industry-wide backdrop of, depending on your perspective, innovation or desperation. Conventional wisdom these days has books dead, with only the precise form of their afterlife left to be determined. Will they exist only as curios for art collectors? Will they simply migrate as is onto e-readers? Or will they be absorbed into other media in a way that makes the very idea of sustained reading antiquated?
A recently launched company called Booktrack sells customized soundtracks that add “synchronized music, sound effects and ambient sound to the text of your favorite e-books.” (Simply add visuals to that mix, and you’ve got a thrilling new invention called the movie.) Booktrack is not just meddling with contemporary books like those by James Frey, an early supporter of the company’s mission. It will also pump up the volume on such swooning classics as Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet, suggesting the venture could be a boon for the royalties of dewy alt-rock bands like Snow Patrol, if nothing else. The soundtrack “really … enhances your imagination,” Booktrack co-founder Paul Cameron recently told The New York Times, presumably with a straight face. For anyone who thinks the other way around—that one’s imagination should do the enhancing—times are tough.
On a more promising note, independent publisher Melville House recently introduced its line of “HybridBooks.” The name might conjure dreary images of books passing nights plugged in next to the Prius in the garage, but the product is a digital batch of smart material related to the book— maps, essays, historical facts, reviews—that can be enjoyed as obtrusively or unobtrusively as you like.
Ticking off influences for the project, Mr. La Farge cited mostly innovative books on paper, like Tristram Shandy, Pale Fire, and Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which he called “essentially a hypertext in print form.”
He avoids calling his own work hypertext, preferring the term “immersive text.” The word “hypertext” has already fallen largely out of circulation (Mr. La Farge first conceived of this project in 1999), and the use of the form for literary purposes has been spotty at best. “With the exception of Geoff Ryman’s excellent 253, [hypertext fiction is] mostly pretty tough going,” Mr. La Farge said. “I think the early enthusiasm for the technology might have given writers a feeling of needing to do less writing work, because the form would carry the work. Whereas my sense is that the opposite is true: you have to pay as much attention to the writing of a hypertext as you would to the writing of a novel, or more attention, really, because novels produce a kind of natural engrossment, whereas online you’re always struggling to hold the reader’s attention.”
Mr. La Farge offered his “highly uninformed prediction” about authors increasingly exploring the formal possibilities of e-books: “It’s like when people started making automobiles: first they looked like horseless carriages, then as people got comfortable with the new form, they started to do more of the things cars could do. But since the economic value of fiction is many orders of magnitude smaller than the economic value of the automobile, I’m guessing the transition will happen more slowly.”
In his own writing career, he is content to go slowly on the tech front. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of another digital foray, because “it’s a lot of fun … to be in the position where you get to ask yourself a lot of questions that writers don’t usually have occasion to ask.” But his next planned project is a novel set in the 1930s and 1960s, with no online component attached. For now, he waits to see what the world makes of his latest trick.
“I feel like one of the people who were trying to invent flying machines,” he said. “I’ve been futzing around in my workshop for 10 years or so, and now maybe I’ve got something that flies, or maybe I’ve got a giant steam-powered bat which is going to break into a thousand pieces the first time I turn it on.”