Luminous Airplanes

Is it necessary to have restrictions in order to write something? I.e., is it necessary to establish rules whereby some things are allowed in your story, and other things are verboten? Most fictions are, like Alex, fussy eaters: they demand that you begin at the beginning and move causally to the end. (That’s “plot.”) Human actions should mostly be explicable. (That’s “character.”) Things can only be in one place at one time; they ought to persist in space unless there is a reason why they shouldn’t do so. (That’s “setting.”) Then there are the rules writ in divers manuals of the writer’s craft: drop protagonist and antagonist into the same pot of water; let them struggle until one tears the claws off the other (that’s the “climax”), then heat the pot to the point where mirages of another world appear (“epiphany”); void the pot and serve, or else let it go on boiling (“closure,” or its lack). And do it efficiently, please, efficiently! Your guests are waiting.
—  Luminous Airplanes by Paul LaFarge

Our very own Mr. Hanson-Finger sent me to this very cool companion website for the new Paul La Farge book, Luminous Airplanes. La Farge says this new work of his falls under the genre of “hyperromance” a term that harkens back to the “hypertext” novels of the late 80’s and 90’s. He claims the reason they failed was because the writers of hypertext novels never got beyond the gimmick; I think it may have more to do with the differences in technology between now and then, and how much more we rely on the internet as a whole. But I digress.

The website for the book is really great. It is beautiful, well designed and easy to navigate. On top of which, Gary Shteyngart has said some very complimentary things: “He (Le Farge) has created as thoroughly imagined a world as you would expect from Chekhov or Flaubert…” Damn. Either way, it will be interesting to see if any other authors try their hand at the “hyperromance”. 

lafarge continued

"Weeks later, when I’d left Thebes and gone to stay with a friend in New York, Marie sent me a letter… . I cut the letter into hundreds of pieces, which I put in a paper bag. I planned to make a collage out of them and send it back to Marie by way of an answer. But unlike Celeste I wasn’t really a maker of collages, and when I moved out of my friend’s house I left the paper bag behind. I asked my friend about it months later, and he said he must have thrown it away."

So, Luminous Airplanes jumps around: the narrative is fragmented, and proceeds more by association than by timeline; the majority of the action takes place in 2000, the present of the book, with sections from the protagonist’s past cropping up to explain or illuminate. This is one of the few moments we get a hint of the future (which always carries the danger of breaking up suspension of disbelief; we accept that the novel exists as something which follows the action, and in a first-person narrative supposes the protagonist’s survival into the present, and capacity to reflect, but hints forward at other actions risk breaking the fourth wall, to mix metaphors). But Luminous Airplanes isn’t always rigorous about its internal continuity; there are conversations that appear to be reported in full, which get followed by references the next morning to things that weren’t talked about; there are points that sent me flipping back to try to establish through-lines (and flipping back is not a common thing for this reader to do). I understand that, for some writers, maybe most writers, it’s necessary to establish a backstory, large swaths of experience and history, that do not make it on to the page, that only inform things in the most roundabout way — but these continuity problems, and Luminous Airplanes as a whole, gives the sense that the book is posterior or accessory to that bulk of imagined backstory; that no suspense is necessary, because the future is fixed and determined; and that the author absolutely could, if asked, produce the letter, the fragments, maybe a dry run or two at the potential collage.

"How had I left him out of my story? But here he was, and he wan’t the only one, I had left out all sorts of people, Momus for example, my friend at Bleak College who came very close to killing me because of something I told his girlfriend; and Deirdre, my girlfriend at Saint Hubert’s Prep, sorry, Dee!"

Luminous Airplanes

Paul La Farge

Finished: February 5, 2013

As is alluded on the inside cover of Luminous Airplanes,1 the book itself is only part of the tale La Farge has crafted — the text continues at a dedicated website, with both the site and (at least some, if not all of) the book’s stories as interconnecting bubbles on what looks like a mind map that you are free to explore.2 One enjoyable quality of the book was the ease in which it jumped from story to story, decade to decade, almost like someone was telling a long, tangential story over a couple of beers, and the mind map visualization goes a long way in explaining how these small stories are part of a greater whole. Plus I like immersing myself in different topics or worlds, looking into small or meandering connective details, so the prospect of exploring this website is kind of exciting.3 Part of me hopes that somewhere on the site is a playable version of Adventure, a BASIC (I think) game that plays a role in the novel, and really I doubt it will be up there, but I look forward to finding out.4

Keep reading

Will you believe me if I tell you that this is another of the books in my small library, here in New Haven? Well, it is. I am trying not to look things up on the Internet for this Commentary. Believe it or not, reader, I am one of those people who’s still attached to books, and I like to get my information from the ones I have handy (and a few that I check out from time to time from the Bleak College library), even though it means I know far less than I could. Which is, come to think of it, a kind of constraint.
—  Luminous Airplanes, Paul La Farge
There is a priest in the Vatican whose job it is to invent Latin words for modern phenomena: telephones and Vaseline, Kleenex and eighteen-wheel trucks and the television news. If only you could have asked that priest what the word was for railway stations you might have been able to name your fear correctly, which might have made the fear go away, because wasn’t that the nature of fear, to be nameless, to be dispelled by names, in which case was the word “agoraphobia” deliberately inexact, was it, in other words, a secret means by which the disease perpetuated itself?
—  Luminous Airplanes
UFO Sighting in El Cajon, California on September 30th 1975 - Me and my sisters playing ball in backyard that backs up to elementary school, craft appeared as white glowing paper airplane almost luminous, traveling back and forth from south to north and north in straight line before suddenly appearing in backyard #UFOS #OVNIS

Momus was the Greek god of mockery and criticism, who was exiled from Mount Olympus for calling Zeus violent and lustful (he was right, though). He also mocked Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, for having made mankind without doors in their chests, through which their souls could be seen. And in this too he was right. If only we could see into one another’s hearts through some little openable door, locked, maybe, but unlockable, if only we could know what was going on in there, think of all the hurt we might not do. But then on the other hand maybe it would make no difference, or maybe it would even be worse. Maybe we’d hurt each other for the pleasure of watching those little fires flicker and dim and eventually go out.
Or maybe—this is what I’m thinking, as I remember how my Bleak story continues—the use of those doors would be, not to see into each other’s hearts, but to know our own.
—  Luminous Airplanes
paul lafarge, luminous airplanes

"In my hurry to leave San Francisco I’d packed only one book, Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which I’d been meaning to read for months; but as soon as I started it I realized I was not in the mood. Reading a novel, especially a contemporary novel, with its small stock of characters and situations, felt like being stuffed into a sleeping bag head-first: it was warm and dark and there wasn’t a lot of room to move around.”

I wouldn’t bring this up at all — this is actually a pretty apt description of some contemporary novels, maybe not necessarily Murakami, but there are any number of names to fill in in that headfirst sleepingbag slot — except that Luminous Airplanes comes with its own online “immersive text” that is intended to supplement and expand the rather short novel that it depends on. Does this constitute having your cake, and eating it, too, then?

FSG 09.27.11

This is probably my favourite text that I’ve studied so far this semester. Not only does the novel have a really great style, but it has this crazy awesome hypertext where you can read the entire thing and an awful lot more. It’s a published novel that isn’t even finished yet, which is pretty cool. And the author is a really nice guy. Best of all the worlds!