Paul LaFarge’s new novel, Luminous Airplanes, is both a regularly formatted novel and an online “hyperromance” (for more on what that means read the history he just wrote over at Salon). For his book party then, he decided he couldn’t just have cheese cubes, wine and the usual sidelong glances and gossip. Instead he organized a participatory experience of his work that was something between a haunted house and a contemporary art installation.
“Because the book is already sort of weird,” he explained in a stairwell at the Center for Fiction last night, next to a spectral figure in a white robe that was hanging down from the ceiling. The ghost in the stairwell was meant to represent the Millerites, a nineteenth-century movement whose adherents believed the second coming of Jesus Christ would take place in 1843 and then were sorely disappointed–although some irrepressible optimists claimed they had indeed ascended to heaven, it just was that heaven turned out to be as paradisical (or not) as earth. The main character of Mr. LaFarge’s novel is doing a PhD dissertation at Stanford on the Millerites.
Mr. LaFarge admitted that as far as experimental book parties go “it’s kind of the first time I’ve done it,” but it was a generally agreed-upon success (and certainly far from the awkward business reception atmosphere of most book parties.)
“It’s the best thing they’ve ever done in this place!” said the writer and critic Richard Kostelanetz, as he passed beneath the Millerite.
Guests began their journey on the eighth floor, a room with wine, gin cocktails and a basket of mini-pretzels. A DJ was ready to spin a playlist of 1990s dance hits. This room represents the main character’s life at the beginning of the book in San Francisco, when he has just returned from a Burning Man-ish music festival in Nevada to the news that his grandfather has died.
Descending the stairwell a floor and passing below the hanging Millerites, the guests then found themselves in a room lined with boxes, each box marked with a note saying “keep” or “throw away.” This floor corresponds to the narrator’s journey back to the place his grandfather lived, the town of Thebes in the Catskills, and the process of sorting through his grandfather’s belongings. At the center of the room a recording of Mr. LaFarge reading his book out loud played from a record player.
Descending again past more Millerites, the next floor had a room devoted to the text-based computer game Adventure, and your correspondent had a Proustian memory of watching her elder sibling playing Adventure on the family Kaypro back in a wintry Minneapolis in the mid-1980s. Anyway, there it was, projected on the wall, the green and black text just as we recalled it from childhood. The game is also part of the book. Guests were having trouble with the antiquated interface and trying to come up with some text-based commands the game could understand. We heard later that some old pros came in and dominated. When we left the room, however, we heard Mr. LaFarge ask how it was going in there.
“They’re stuck up against the wall,” someone replied.
“In the game or in life?” asked Mr. LaFarge, sounding concerned.
We continued down the stairs, to a doorway manned by an intern handing out flashlights. This floor involved a sort of treasure hunt, where guests had to find a clue hidden on a writers’ desk, then deploy the clue to search the card catalog and find a book (Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, it turned out) with a letter hidden in it. (This also relates back to the novel). We didn’t realize any of this about needing to find the letter, we just wandered the stacks with our flashlight and listened as recordings of Mr. LaFarge reading his novel at a whisper emanated spookily from the recesses of the shelves.
We wrote the novelist Gary Shteyngart to see what he thought of the whole thing. “Paul LaFarge is a god,” he replied. “Anyone who doesn’t read Luminous Airplanes is sick in the head.”