Luminous Airplanes ~ Paul La Farge

As the novel opens the narrator/protagonist, who has been away at a music festival learns that his grandfather has died. He thinks of the image of a fisherman about to be consumed by a great wave – the famous Hokusai woodcut that his grandfather had sent to him every birthday on a post card. The image and its significance as a metaphor for man’s life on earth is not apparent to him as yet. But toward the end of the novel it will dawn on him what the image is saying to him about the ways we face life. The things we have to learn.

La Farge’s Lumninouis Airplanes is essentially a quest novel, the essential element being a man’s (the narrator is never named, unless I missed it) quest to understand his origins: to uncover the facts about his missing father and how this void impacted his life. How would it have been any different if his father had not left his mother before he was born. What paths that his life had taken were pre-determined (fate) and what actions came from his own free-will? And how to tell them apart?

The epigraph is “Run” a song from the soundtrack of the Hal Hartley film, Henry Fool. And in may ways the narrator is just that. I’ve not seen this (or any other) of Hal Hartley’s films, although I’ve run across his name many times as an influential and prolific player on the indie scene. If I were to state the essential fact about the narrator (the first word of the novel is “I”, so let’s call him “I” from now on) it would be that he’s a runner: a runner from his life, a runner from his responsibilities, a runner from entanglements, a runner from his past (while at the same time running to the uncovering of his personal history). The novel is meant to get at the why of this, and it does that.

“I”finds himself living in San Francisco – the time is September 2000. A history major, he had dropped out of Stanford before completing his Master’s dissertation on The Millerites and The Great Disappointment. One of the recurring Chapters is named The Great Disappointment, about a mid-19th Century rapture sect that has soon to be apparent  implications to his own life. “I” now works as a programmer at a software start-up. He receives the news of his grandfather’s death from “my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers”, telling him that his Oliver had died and was already buried. His mother had not been able to each him. His plural mothers are sisters: Marie Celeste and Celeste Marie. Later we find that his biological mother is MC (not CM), but the two sisters have lived together since they left home at an early age to pursue their dreams in New York. But that was the secondary motive. Marie was also pregnant with the child of her father’s lawyer, Richard Ente. Growing up , “I” had spent most of his summers in the (fictional, as far as I can tell) northeastern Catskill town of  Thebes, New York with his grandfather (the home where his mothers grew up) and they have asked “I” to clean out the ancestral home.

Back in Thebes, “I” meets up with his uncle Charles, a Vietnam vet, who he has not seen in many years. He also reacquaints himself with his childhood friends Kerem Regenzeit and his sister Yesim. They had had a thing growing up. Childish, forst-blush puppy love

I wasn’t in love with Yesim at first – that came later – but from the very beginning I liked the ordinariness of the Regenzeit’s lives

The Regenzeits now own and run the ski resort which their father Joe (who has retired to the ancestral home in Anatolia) had founded. The fact of the ski resort had been the source of a feud between the Regenzeits and the Rowlands (“I’s” family name). Oliver had tried to sue the ski resort for messing with the atmosphere and dumping snow on his property. And who was his lawyer? None other than Richard Ente. The enigmatic Richard Ente. Or was he? Different people have different memories of him. Different perceptions, making it hard for “I” to nail down his ‘real’ father.

My uncle and my mothers and I were like witnesses identifying different people in a lineup; and like a stubborn eyewitness I continued to believe that the Richard I saw (even if I had never seen him) was the one who had done it. 

Most of the people in La Farge’s universe are somehow dissatisfied with their lot. They want something different but can’t bring themselves to work at it, or accept with good grace the things that they do have. I suppose this may be an apt description of the lives of a majority of us? Quiet desperation and all that. If there is contentment, then that is good. If there is resentment, then there is a strong probability that we rail against our fate. But I liked the secret knowledge that is glimpsed here about I’s grandmother:

She understood what none of them were even close to figuring out, that this was all there was. Wherever you went in the world, whatever you did, you would find more or less the same thing, people dancing in hot rooms, brooding husbands, gardens, lights, the sound of sex, children who wanted breakfast, and there was no point in wishing that life were otherwise, because if it was very much different from this, then it wouldn’t be life at all.

 “I’s” father expresses a similar thought, but from a much darker place, a place that has not embraced this assessment. He’s realistic, but brooding. And he was a suicide.

We’re all creatures of more or less the same species dancing around on this planet for only an eyeblink and then forever gone.

Toward the conclusion of the novel during a conversation with his childhood friend Kerem, “I’s” assessment is somewhere in the middle. He’s at a fork in the road. Will he make that left turn and embrace the life that is, the life that Mary has described? Or will he like his father: veer off the path and hasten his own death?:

“I’m trying to figures some things out,” I said. There it was again, that terrible word things, which soared like an airplane over life’s specificity, lumping together fields and trees, cities, lakes, rivers, mountains, places where people lived and places where they didn’t. Things was what the world became when you didn’t love it enough to pay attention.

Thinking about “The Great Disappointment” of the Adventist Millierites, “I” thinks

There’s something terrible about the fact that things go on. It’s not just the embarrassment of having been wrong, of having not Gone Up in your ascension robe, like a little luminous airplane: it’s the sheer overwhelmingness of the world, where the wind keeps blowing and the sky darkens with rain, where people sell bread and sharpen scissors and pack their wagons, their cars, and go on trips and fall in love and none of it seems likely ever to stop. Here it all is and no one will tell you what to do about it, where to go, how to even to begin to understand all the things that are taking place. Compared to the world’s bigness, the apocalypse would be a relief.

As Yesim and “I” pick-up where they left off many years ago, “I” fails to grasp how fragile she is – she’s been in and out of sanatoriums several times. She’s trying to get her life back together and does have affection for “I”, but “I” seems self-centered and it turns out that he may be just as damaged as she. Her brother understands this and hopes that “I” does as well. Their new-found relationship rakes several twists and turns, the last being the intervention in their lives by the 9-11 disaster.

Insightful and beautifully written, I surprisingly fell in love with the book, though I at times became aggravated with “I”.  La Farge (this is my first) is definitely an author that I’d like to catch up on.


The novel is filled with literary, cinematic, musical and pop culture references, so (do you know me by now?) I’ve compiled a list – or should I say I’m compelled to list! This is a sure sign that I enjoyed the book immensely.

Literary references:


Magic Mountain‘s Hans Castorp

Pharoah’s dream. All three of the above are noted with their references to the number 7.

Norman Mailer. “I” drives around in what is purported to be Mailer’s old car, so always referred to as Norman Mailer’s car.

Washington Irving and his Rip Van Winkle: La Farge has set the location (Thebes) “more or less” where the Rip Van Winkle story is set,

Moby Dick. “I” works at a “content-management solutions” company in San Francisco, Cetacean Solutions. With the economic downturn in late 2000, the word Cetacean lends itself to an extended metaphor: the manager of the company is the captain of the whaling ship whose clients (whales) have all but vanished, and whose workers either spend their time scanning the horizon at the top of the mizzen mast looking for clients or sharpening their harpoons.

The Song of Roland. Referenced as the source of the enmity between the Regenzeits (those Turks!)  and the Rolands (their French heritage).

Murakami’s Norwegian Wood“I” has “packed only one book” for his emergency trip to Thebes, a book that he had “been meaning to read for months”. Interestingly, both this Murakami novel and the quest themed 1Q84 which I have very recently read, have much in common with La Farge’s LA: all three attempt to recapture lost loves, and 1Q84 has as one of its main characters (Tengo) attempting to reconcile with his father before he dies – not knowing if he is really his father. So too, “I” has questions about his father, how did he die and what was he really like? Come to think of it DeWitt’s The Last Samurai also has a character in search of his father’s true identity and nature, brought up without a father as was the protagonist/narrator in this novel.

Progress in Flying Machines: Grandpa Oliver’s idea of bedtime reading (to his grandson). “Published in 1894, it was…the book that inspired the Wright Brothers to build their airplane”. But it also prophetically was a metaphor for his Grandfather’s life – not to mention his grandson’s.

…my grandfather’s history, like that of many of the so-called pioneers of flight, was largely the story of his failure to get off the ground,

This book (linked to here) makes for fascinating browsing.

The mother’s teenage bookshelf: The Bell Jar, Being and Nothingness, Steppenwolf, The Stranger. Check off three of the four on my bookshelf at that age. Never read Plath and couldn’t work up a desire to. I suppose I’m missing out. Am I? And why?

J.R.R. Tolkein, Lloyd Alexander. I may be one of the only people still in existence who have never read Tolkein – and never even seen the movies!

Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty

Nancy Drew’s Dos and Dont’s for Girls. Obviouily not, I was more a Bomba the Jungle Boy sorta guy.

Man and Woman

“Thomas Nast’s caricatures of Boss Tweed”

Plato’s Timaeus

George F. Carter, geographical historian

Homer and “the wine dark sea”. It may be time to read Homer again.

Allen Ginsberg, Howl.  When “I” contemplates suicide, he actually walks to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and starts to climb over. He thinks about this story:

A friend of mine in High School knew someone who jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge and lived. A classmate’s father: apparently he swam to Chinatown and got lunch there. Ginsberg wrote about him in Howl. 

He did write about it:

who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer,

Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch

What Remains to Be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race by John Maddox

Musical references

Bob Dylan: “I’s” upstairs neighbor snorts cocaine on Saturday nights and “listenes to Dylan at top volume”, Positively 4th Street.  Living in my first apartment in Jamaica Plain, I (not “I”) had had a landlord dispute and would come home from work each day and play one particular Dylan tune at the same top volume – “Dear Landlord”. Please don’t put a price on my soul.

Hope Sandoval


Junior Vasquez (selling CD players) and Moby (selling cars): a reference to the co-opting and sell out of our music (“the tendency of money to ruin everything”).

The Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten

Minor Threat, Murphy’s Law, Dead Kennedy’s, the Circle Jerks

“Joan Buy-yez, that kind of thing”

Def Leppard

David Byrne, The New York Dolls

The East Village scene in the seventies: “Johnny and Lizzy, Debbie and Patti, Richard, Lou and David who wore a dress everywhere.”


Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb

Janis Joplin

Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin

Best of Frank Sinatra

Talking Heads “Burning Down the House”

Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”


Guess Who’s “American Woman”

References to Cinema and the Fine Arts

The Marilyn Monroe film The Seven Year Itch

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Sean Connery’s James Bond and Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert

The Shining

“…whose murals were in a Warhol movie”

2001 and Forbidden Planet



Filed under Books

3 responses to “Luminous Airplanes ~ Paul La Farge

  1. I don’t know what I enjoyed more, the review or the lists that followed!

  2. This sounds fascinating. On the list it goes!

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