“Luminous Airplanes,” Paul La Farge’s third novel, invites readers to get lost in the memoir of a young man getting lost writing a memoir.
Somewhere between “On the Road” (wanderlust and absent fathers) and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (tidal earnestness and relentless self-examination), La Farge pitches his never-ending story of a young man’s return from Dot-Com-boom San Francisco to Thebes, N.Y., a town in the remote Catskills. He’s come home to sort through his late grandfather’s effects and a tangled family history.
Once upon a time, grandfather Oliver Rowland sued Joe Regenzeit, the Turkish American next door, for seeding snow clouds to improve conditions at the town’s ski resort.
The lawyer Oliver hired to plead his case impregnated one of his teenage daughters and fled to Colorado. Oliver’s daughters subsequently moved to New York, where they became an artistically ambitious pair known to their son, the narrator, as “the Celestes.”
In present-day Thebes, the narrator reconnects with the now-adult children of his grandfather’s old nemesis, who also have returned home to sort out their lives.
This Proustian novel reflects the rabbit-hole effect of a complementary Web site that La Farge is updating continuously. Your enthrallment with “Luminous Airplanes” will hinge entirely on your tolerance for its privileged but directionless narrator, a writer, computer programmer and lapsed Stanford PhD student. An intelligent guy, he nurtures curious obsessions, such as the Millerite cult of the mid-19th century, which believed the world would end on Oct. 22, 1844.
One treasured keepsake the narrator inherited from his grandfather is a book called “Progress in Flying Machines,” a record of humanity’s attempts at flight before the Wright brothers.
An object of fascination for him as a child, the book now serves as a metaphorical engine for his life story, the “luminous airplane” an unwieldy ambition that knows no place in the world.
Whereas the bound novel ends on Sept. 11, 2001, the on-line version goes on and on, up to and including the book’s publication.
The national tragedy might have registered more powerfully were it, like the name of the narrator, never explicitly mentioned in the text.
Price is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in the Millions, the Rumpus and Electric Literature’s the Outlet.
By Paul La Farge
Farrar Straus Giroux. 242 pp. $25