Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge
I had just come home from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died.
Thus begins Luminous Airplanes, a quirky novel right from the outset, particularly so for the book is backed up by a website which continues its branching narrative – billed as a ‘Hyperromance’ – giving you an additional experience a bit like a those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books. However, the novel works on its own perfectly well without the website, so we’ll concentrate there.
It’s the 1990s, and the unnamed narrator works in computers in San Francisco after dropping out of a History course at Stanford. He has a happy life in California, currently single but still friends with his ex-girlfriend Alice. When he hears that his grandfather has died and that he’s missed the funeral, he considers not going back to his hometown, but he knows that his mothers won’t do the home clearing – they’ll just arrange for it all to be chucked, so he gets in his car, (which used to belong for Norman Mailer), and sets off across the country to Thebes…
It was for my sake that my mothers ran away from Thebes. They didn’t want to have their child in a little town in the Catskills where things happened so slowly that people were still speaking French six generations after the first settlers arrived. By Thebes standards, my mothers were more like weather than like people: they changed fast, and they moved on. They took me to New York, where they were going to be famous artists, only they had no idea about money and knew how to do nothing, nothing.
Yes, it does say ‘mothers’ above. He was brought up by twin sisters Marie Celeste and Celeste Marie: Marie being his birth mother. Still a teenager, Marie fell for her father’s lawyer: Richard Ente was a handsome fifty year old who ran from town when the romance was uncovered. Understandably, our narrator is obsessed with finding out about his absent and deceased father.
Back in Thebes, he is reunited with his neighbours, the Regenzeits, a Turkish family. Siblings Kerem and Yesim run the Snowbird Ski Resort on the edge of town, which had been developed by their father Joe, and was the subject of the lawsuit for which his grandfather had employed Ente. Yesim was his childhood sweetheart, could he re-kindle something?
So our narrator jumps from a path of an easy life back into one of uncertainty and with many questions needing to be answered – branches to be explored if you will. Some of them are paths that have been gone down before, but time has changed them. What happened the first time will affect what happens now, and like the labyrinth in the early computer game he was addicted to as a teenager, how will he know exactly where he is?
This quirky tale of dysfunctional families is told with a wry voice, that is always taking us off in different directions, flashing back in time non-linearly – sometimes to childhood, at other times to teenage or college years or the recent past, before returning to the now of the novel. Along the way we hear about his history thesis on a Christian cult that believed the world was going to end, his favourite book about the history of flight, amongst other digressions, but gradually as he gets to grips with his grandfather’s things, the answers to some of his questions begin to reveal themselves, and he is able to realise his place in the world.
It’s a strange sort of coming of age story when the narrator is almost a thirty-something – but there is a definite sense of this, perhaps better expressed as reaching an emotional maturity. It’s all done with a light touch, even when things get really serious, it’s witty but not hilarious.
As quirky novels about dysfunctional families go, the best I’ve read in a long time was The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here). Luminous Airplanes adds a small town mentality to the mix and was a great read but lacked the Fang’s madness. The narrator, who let’s face it, is a bit of a slacker, was too content to let things happen to him – although I did warm to him when he couldn’t get into Murakami’s Norwegian Wood; a book I’ve failed with too. I also loved being reminded of that old computer game Adventure aka Colossal Cave, which I used to play at lunchtimes back in the mid 1980s – “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”.
I enjoyed this book a lot and had fun pootling around the website for a while too. One for fans of quirky family novels. (7.5/10)
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I was sent this book by the publisher. Thank you.
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Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge. Pub Aug 2012 by 4th Estate, Trade Paperback 256 pages.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson