Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes is odd and lovely, a sort of coming of age novel with a postmodern twist. The bursting of the internet bubble and passing of his grandfather precipitates an emotional crises. He abandons his Ciity of Ghosts (San Francisco) with a return to his boyhood past, and his one solid familial memory in Thebes NY. Here he is reminded he has something he has forgotten and papered over, perhaps because of its indistinctness--a past.
"He" is our unnamed protagonist--a bit angst ridden, a bit too enamored of psychedelic drugs. The remainder of the novel is a pretty straightforward look at what can only be described as a kind of Faulknerian exploration at the turn of the last century. Is the past still past? Is it real? And what constitutes connection? What constitutes a binding tie? It's complicated when you have no father--he killed himself-- but two mothers who happen to be twin sisters, Celeste Marie and Marie Celeste, aka The Celestes. Most interesting is his interaction with Yesim, his childhood neighbor and now equally damaged friend teetering on the brink of madness at the beginning of the 21st. Her father has gone off Turkey to reclaim the old ways as she tries to find any way that makes sense for an alien in both worlds. Quite moving is her questioning the value of liberated women and freedom--if you don't know freedom exists, do you miss it?
As Yesim helps pack up and dispose of the grandfather's life she is a sort of lightening rod for questions about the value of anybody's life. These existential musings, cloaked in humor or crises are LA's great strength. There is also a site that you can go to as you read along with the book. It's a lot to engage, but parts of it are very cool. Just a word of caution--some of it distracts from the book, which as hip as the site can be, aren't we really interested in the book? Maybe not. There are disconnects here: the Celestes get blamed for the loss of his father. But are 17 year old girls really responsible for the philandering nature of a 55 year statutory rapist? And just as dad had a knack for "the wrong girl", the apple doesn't fall to far from the tree. In the end, he more his father's son than he knew.
It's that confusion that makes me drop a star. Luminous Airplanes is an oddity in lots of ways and just weird in others. The tone is ironic, the humor is hip in a Demetri Martin sort of way and even at its most serious one gets the feeling the author is winking at the reader. But I liked La Farge best when he was less hip and more traditionally metaphorical. The title is taken from a book his grandfather read to him as a child--Progress in Flying Machines. Presumably the book that inspired the Wright Bros. Therefore every flying machine in the book was a failure. Grandpa believed failure so commonplace, there was much to learn from it, much that served as a life lesson. Deep.
Worthwhile? Definitely. Quirky? Yup. And so pleased to be so.