There is a lot of ground covered in Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes, from the Great Disappointment of the 19th century to a time when computers were the province of dedicated insomniacs obsessed with the idea of making the machines do their bidding. Beneath the divergences and skittering chronology, however, is a fairly banal search for a father figure. —
The unnamed narrator, who abandoned his dissertation on the Millerite movement and their conviction that they would all ascend to heaven Oct. 22, 1844—sound familiar?—finds himself at his grandparents’ home in upstate New York, sorting through his recently deceased grandfather’s things, drinking and ruminating on the past. His mother was abandoned by his hippie father and spent the rest of her life with her twin sister, raising the narrator together and sending him to visit their parents every summer.
La Farge packs a lot of quirkiness into his 242 pages, from his grandfather’s neighbor, who salted the clouds to make it snow and turn his winter resort into a success, to a desperate search for a homeless man in San Francisco. The parts, however, are more engrossing than the whole; La Farge’s narrator is exactly the kind of overgrown Peter Pan who flees responsibility that movies have over-represented for the last decade.
What saves Luminous Airplanes is La Farge’s style, one that sprinkles truth among the catalog of historical failures by which his narrator is gradually consumed. “Something was wrong with Yesim’s imagination: it stored its kisses too close to its tears,” is a gorgeous and moving observation, one of many that prevent Luminous Airplanes from feeling like a retread.
Ultimately, one’s enjoyment of La Farge’s characters is entirely dependent on one’s saturation level for aimless narrators who falter when it comes time to make decisions. For anyone who isn’t tired of such men, Luminous Airplanes is a skillful, enjoyable read.
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