Thinking Outside the Book: Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes Takes Off Online

Paul La Farge. (Photo: Carol Shadford)

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.

Thinking Outside the Book: Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes Takes Off Online