Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge is a book that tries to answer the question of how to adapt the traditional paper and pasteboard book to the digital age. How do you take what is essentially a static collection of words and turn it into something open ended and interactive? How do you give it a new digital dimension? Mr. La Farge's answer is to turn his novel about a content manager returning to his boyhood home in the Catskills to confront his past into an experiment in hypertexting or, as he prefers to call it, "immersive" text.
The protagonist of Luminous Airplanes is also the narrator-a nameless database content manager living in San Francisco in the waning days of the dotcom boom of the 1990s. Returning from a Burning Man-style festival, he learns that his grandfather has died and that he must go back to his childhood home in the little town of Thebes, NY to dispose of his grandfather's house and belongings. In what proves to be less of a family obligation than an excuse to sort out his aimless life, our hero drives across the country and irresolutely sets himself to the task of sorting through five generations of accumulated memories. As he does so, he uncovers clues about the father who abandoned his mother shortly after getting her pregnant and now exists only as a name and the target of epithets hurled by his mother and aunt. Complicating this, he runs into childhood friends Kerem and Yesmin Regenzeit, which rekindles a decades-old attraction on our hero's part for Yesmin that results in a brief sexual encounter.
Interspersed with the main story, the narrator also relates his autobiography in a series of flashbacks that act as a parallel story to the main plot culminating with his mystifying hero worship of a homeless paranoid/would-be revolutionary in San Francisco and the narrator's jump from delayed adolescence to premature midlife crisis in one go.
A standard plot
Luminous Airplanes strives for originality but ends up as predictable. Its plot is standard: a death/illness/reunion requires the protagonist to revisit his or her past, secrets are revealed, he or she must re-evaluate his or her life in the light of this, and said life goes in a new, enlightened direction. Basically, this is every third script submitted to a fringe theater. The bouncing back and forth between timelines has also been standard kit since Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five, though in this case it seems to be more an excuse for digression, which La Farge seems to enjoy, rather than character development or pushing the plot forward. His writing style is accessible, but the narration is so detached that it's hard to care about what's going on and there is far too much exposition, which is laid on right until the end of the book. What La Farge's intentions are is kept unclear.
Fulfilling the digital promiseThis is equally true of La Farge's attempt at turning his novel into "hypertext". In fact, the novel is just an ordinary book without any hypertexts in it and the only concession to the digital world is a URL on the last page leading to La Farge's website.
There the reader finds a splash page that leads to a spartan expanding menu of links that looks like something from 1997. These turn out to be a random collection of definitions, notes, glosses, scraps of dialog, story fragments, essays, excerpts from the novel and the promise of an interview with La Farge that proves to be just a recommendation for a bar in San Francisco. Anyone expecting to find an annotation of the novel, an expansion of it into related stories, or properly organized background material will be disappointed. The information is literally random and for an exercise in hypertext it is singularly lacking in cross references or even basic navigation that doesn't rely heavily on the backspace key. Some of the links even leap into the middle of topics that are needlessly spread over several pages. If the reader is fortunate, he may stumble across the page where La Farge explains that the site is essentially a literary joke: a cross between a 1980s text adventure game and one of those Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks-only in this case, it's a Choose Your Own Adventure where the reader is expected to dip in at random rather than follow the story thread as intended.
The irony about Luminous Airplanes is that technology has in many ways already done what La Farge set out to do and does it better. Reading the novel on an ebook reader or a tablet, it takes only one click to have a word defined, another to search for a reference or follow a tangent of information on the web, and yet another to highlight a passage, make a note and to share these annotations with others. And this applies to any book.
The idea is an interesting one, but the result falls short of finding a new format for the novel.