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Luminous Airplanes

Paul La Farge

Economist review

Book publishing has its seasons. The easy beach reads of summer make way for autumn's weightier tomes from the big dogs of literary fiction: Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth and their ilk. Neither sort of book makes an ideal companion for the commuter—holiday-lit is often too fluffy, and autumn offerings are too chunky. What is a fiction-lover to do?

One solution is "Luminous Airplanes" by Paul La Farge, a novel of modest length about a sluggish computer-programmer tasked with clearing out five generations of junk from his deceased grandparents' home. Raised by twin sisters, the unnamed man drives east from San Francisco to the fictional enclave of Thebes, NY, a "little town in the Catskills where things happened so slowly that people were still speaking French six generations after the first settlers arrived."

As our narrator re-inhabits the sleepy neighbourhood where he spent his childhood summers, he finds that Thebes has changed quite a bit since he left. The Regenzeits, his former neighbours, have expanded their ski resort to draw rich weekenders from New York. These holiday travellers have in turn created a market for organic apples and exotic coffee. His grandparents have died, his uncle is dying, and his childhood friends have changed, like errant weeds, in strange and sometimes awful ways. Underpinning this journey is the mystery of his father - a shadowy figure gradually revealed by way of anecdotes and unearthed letters as his son clears through the ancestral clutter.

La Farge, a novelist and academic, is up to something crafty in his newest effort. He seems to have devised a new genre: the "hyperromance". His novel comes with a complementary online component, where readers can pursue certain narrative threads in different directions, clicking through for more detail or a new story when the opportunity presents itself. Yet the book is beautiful on its own. The accompanying website is what a music critic might deem "for completists only". Some readers will enjoy exploring its corners, but the web element is neither necessary nor forcefully recommended.

To his credit, La Farge has a light touch with his writing experiments, and for the most part "Luminous Airplanes" is an old-fashioned realist novel. As the narrator divides his grandparents' possessions into "keep" and "sell or give away" piles, the memories that are triggered turn the book into a volley between past and present. This sounds confusing, but it feels intuitive on the page. Old objects carry a heavy burden, often weighted with nostalgia. It is the author's neat invention to turn this into the structure of a novel; for the reader, each unearthed episode is engaging and resonant. La Farge ingeniously selects and manipulates the telling detail, cannily summoning the vase of flowers that makes a house seem lived in, the job prospect that beckons "with lovely phantom hands", and the insidious comfort of returning to a ghost town.

The novel's solitary male narrator and wide sprinkling of proper nouns call to mind Haruki Murakami, who gets a tip of the hat when La Farge's narrator props open a copy of "Norwegian Wood". But La Farge has no interest in staking out Murakami’s territory. His character barely glances at the book before closing it again, remarking that "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."

Although "Luminous Airplanes" is cut from the same cloth, it is in no danger of feeling claustrophobic. This is an easy book to pick up, put down, and pick up again. And its central concern—the mystery and possibility of unexpected encounters—is just right for commuters.

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