It was a book that, ‘would surely have been easier to finish if I hadn’t been haunted by the idea that the novel could be something more, that it could extend its branches indefinitely in the vast space of the Internet.’
Posthyperfiction: Practices in Digital Textuality – Scott Rettberg
In 2011, Paul La Farge published Luminous Airplanes with Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. The main character and narrator of the novel is a web developer, a graduate of Bleak College and a former history Ph.D. student at Stanford. After the internet bubble has burst, he has moved back to his hometown of Thebes to sort through the belongings of his deceased grandfather and to prepare the family home for sale. In the process he is sorting through his own past in an attempt to sort out his own identity. The novel functions as a sort of bildungsroman as the narrator moves us through different periods of his life. The novel as it was printed is a kind of cut of a larger hypertext project published online. Though the “immersive text” version of the novel (La Farge’s editors at FSG did not want him to call it “hypertext” because they felt the word had negative connotations) is presented as an expansion of the novel, it is clear from reading La Farge’s commentary within the hypertext that the writing and development of the hypertext actually preceded the printed book. What essentially occurred then is that an editor came to the hypertext with a sharp knife and whittled away about 2/3 of the material included in the hypertext.The “immersive text”version of Luminous Airplanes includes a great deal more material than there is in the printed book. The segments or episodes of the novel that appear there include both the material found in the book and other stories, episodes and texts that expand on the context of the novel. On the one hand, much of the material in the online hypertext version of the story fleshes out the reader’s understanding of the characters and their relationships, but on the other,some of the material, such as the long section “Summerland, about half a novel”—a manuscript written by the main character—does not add much to the experience of reading the work. There is a qualityof everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-ism to the immersive text, and some gems appear alongside pages that might have been better left in the author’s drawer.
COPYPASTAS FROM LUMINOUS AEROPLANES
When you, when I, first thought of making a hypertext (or “immersive text,” as my editor wants me to call it), I was like what Proust says about the would-be aviators who are so dear to my heart: I possessed the desire to fly, but not the secret mechanism that would get me off the ground. In my case, the lack had nothing to do with technology. I had worked as a programmer for years; the construction of a suitable Web backend was, if not second nature, at least something I could do with the help of a couple of reference books and some open-source software libraries from the Internet. It’s true, the technology I’m using now didn’t exist in 2002 (in fact, it’s very sophisticated, my technology, despite the simple face this Commentary turns to the world), but I could have cobbled something together.
The problem was elsewhere: not on the Net but in my heart. I possessed the desire to fly, but I also possessed the desire not to fly, and for a long time, certainly in the summer of 2001, and again in the summer of 2002, and in the summers and winters and springs and autumns that followed, my desire not to fly was much stronger than any other desire I was capable of feeling. (I wonder if the pioneers of flight, some of them, anyway, had the same problem.
The materials from which Otto Lilienthal made a working glider in 1894 were available when Leonardo Da Vinci drew up plans for his impossible flyer in 1488; I wonder if the compromises which resulted in Da Vinci’s flyer and all the weird unworkable machines that followed it were made not with the technical world, but within the hearts, the heads, of the inventors themselves.)
…. is the story of all of those things, of all those people and all those events, but it is also the story of something else, the transformation of this idea, to write a Commentary, into a thing, which exists as much as anything on the Web exists; it’s the story of the subterranean progress by which an idea carves its way through a person until it finally emerges in the world, for better or worse, for people—you!—to consider.
“My biography was like a series of open parentheses nesting themselves deeper and deeper within a sentence that would never be finished.”
Ticking off influences for the project, Mr. La Farge cited mostly innovative books on paper, like Tristram Shandy, Pale Fire, and Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which he called “essentially a hypertext in print form.”
Mr. La Farge offered his “highly uninformed prediction” about authors increasingly exploring the formal possibilities of e-books: “It’s like when people started making automobiles: first they looked like horseless carriages, then as people got comfortable with the new form, they started to do more of the things cars could do. But since the economic value of fiction is many orders of magnitude smaller than the economic value of the automobile, I’m guessing the transition will happen more slowly.”
“I feel like one of the people who were trying to invent flying machines,” he said. “I’ve been futzing around in my workshop for 10 years or so, and now maybe I’ve got something that flies, or maybe I’ve got a giant steam-powered bat which is going to break into a thousand pieces the first time I turn it on.”
What’s going to be on the
I wanted to have a novel that tells one story, and this other immersive text—that’s what the publishers call it; I wanted to call it a “hypertext,” but apparently hypertext got a bad rap in the ’90s. The idea was to have a play between two forms. One is contained and bounded and linear; the other is exploded and boundless and not linear.
“Luminous Airplanes” is an unlikely project for La Farge, an experimental writer whose earlier books include an extended allegory (“The Artist of the Missing”) and a work of historical fiction presented as a translation of an obscure French text (“Haussmann; Or, The Distinction”). By contrast, this new book is essentially a realist novel. True, it wears a postmodern coat — heaven forbid we should go outside without one in this climate — which manifests as a fondness for the digressive and the knowing. But it is a thin layer, one that seems as much a part of the story as an attempt to subvert it. The result feels like a kind of Realism 2.0, which makes sense: for La Farge and his generation, the patina of postmodernity has always been part of reality.
La Farge’s experimental-fiction roots do show, however, in a Web-based “immersive text” that supplements the print version of “Luminous Airplanes.” This text includes the entire contents of the book, plus additional sections on — oh, you name it: Julio Cortázar, attention deficit disorder, Cotton Mather, Murphy beds. In the reviewer materials I received, La Farge’s editor writes that the immersive text “points an exciting way forward” for literature. In fact, though, it points backward, to precisely the era in which “Luminous Airplanes” is set. Back then, the Venn diagram circles of book nerds and tech geeks had just kissed for the first time, and within a certain literary scene, hypertext fiction was all the rage. The Web supplement hails from that era, and La Farge knows it. Dig into it deep enough, and you’ll find him describing it as “the last hypertext on earth, lumbering out of the past to wreak havoc on civilization.”
Wreaking havoc on civilization is an overstatement, but I can’t recommend that you read “Luminous Airplanes” online. Navigating the text’s hyperlinks disrupts its narrative momentum, to the point that the whole thing feels like a kind of literary 52-card pickup — i.e., a lot more fun for the thrower than the throwee. The most generous take on this Web project is that it reads like a rough draft of a very good novel — which this is. Listen to the narrator, as a boy, encountering a computer for the first time: “ ‘Check it out,’ Kerem said. He switched the machine on, and . . . green words appeared and vanished, leaving only a prompt, >, the beginning of the beginning.”
La Farge is astute and touching on primitive computing and the inner life of a blossoming first-generation geek. His larger interest, though, lies with computers as metaphor. An error in Line 2, he reminds us, can bring you down 70,000 lines later; and the syntax of programming can sound a lot like the structure of life: “If, and if, else if, else. Then. Then. Then.”
La Farge coaxes similarly effective symbolism from the history of the airplane. In Thebes, the narrator reads a book called “Progress in Flying Machines,” the tragicomedy of which is that it was published in 1894 — meaning that none of the machines it features ever flew. What useful lesson, he wonders, could early aviators have possibly extracted from, say, an ornithopter: “Don’t make any more giant bats? Hose-tethered flying machines not a good idea? The hard fact of it was that ornithopters, machines with flapping wings, were a digression from the path that led to the airplane.”