cover image Luminous Airplanes

Luminous Airplanes

Paul La Farge. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-374-19431-4

One of the remarkable things about this brilliantly imagined novel is the deft, subtle way that La Farge (Haussmann, or the Distinction) interpolates random digressions into a wholly integrated narrative. A disaffected computer programmer narrator journeys to Thebes in upper New York State to clean out his grandparents' house (his two moms fled the town before he was born. A multilayered plot provides compelling social history: the narrator has just returned from a Nevada festival, "a kind of dress rehearsal for the end of the world." San Francisco, where he lives, is "a city of ghosts" in the aftermath of the tech boom and bust. His unfinished graduate dissertation was about the Millerites, a Protestant sect that predicted the end of the world in 1844. His late grandfather's favorite book, Progress in Flying Machines, published in 1894 and thus "a catalogue of failures," prompts the narrator to think about a Millerite's proposed method of reaching heaven: an "ascension robe" like "a little luminous airplane." The young narrator himself feels like an aimless ghost; no purposeful goal, no intimate attachments, career paths abandoned one after another. During the course of his time in Thebes, he'll discover the identity of his mysterious father and unravel the complicated truth of his violent death. Many events take a circular form, pointing to the continuity of existence and the resilience of the human spirit: "thousands of years of total failure didn't deter us." La Farge spins his tale with the grace of an acrobat and creates the thrill of watching a high-wire act when digressions begin to converge into a coherent story. A Web site ( promises an "immersive text" with expanded%E2%80%94and expanding%E2%80%94material. (Oct. 4)