In September 2000, a young computer programmer comes home from a festival in the Nevada desert and learns that his grandfather has died. He must return to Thebes, a town so isolated that its inhabitants have their own language, and clean out the house where his family has lived for five generations. While he's there, he remembers San Francisco in the wild years of the Internet boom, and begins an ill-advised romance in which past and present are dangerously confused. Paul la Farge's Luminous Airplanes is an expansive, hugely imaginative, and very funny novel about history, love, memory, family, flying machines, dance music, and the end of the world.
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CONTACT WITH OTHER WORLDS
I had just come home from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died.
"I've been trying to reach you for days," she said. "Where were you?"
I told her I'd been camping. I didn't tell her I was at a pagan celebration where people danced around bonfires, a kind of dress rehearsal for the end of the world. I didn't mention the huge glowing fish or the women with wings.
Celeste told me that my grandfather had died on Thursday morning, around the time when I was leaving San Francisco in my friends' big white RV. My uncle Charles found him collapsed at his desk. He'd had a heart attack, the doctor said. His death was quick and probably not painful.
"That's good," I said, still dazed from the drugs I'd taken at the festival and the nights I'd gone without sleep. "When is the funeral?"
"It was this morning."
"You had it without me?"
"We couldn't wait," Celeste said in the tone of voice she uses when eliding facts that might put her in the wrong. "Marie is closing an issue and she has to go back to work." Marie is Celeste's twin sister: by birth Marie Celeste, as Celeste was by birth Celeste Marie: another story. She works for S, a women's magazine.
"But," I began to protest, but Celeste wasn't finished catching me up on what I'd missed. "We're going to sell the house," she said. "Do you want any of your grandparents' things?" It would mean going back to upstate New York, she said, because the house was full from attic to basement with junk, and my mothers had no intention of sorting through it. They never got along with my grandfather, and my grandmother, with whom, to be honest, they also didn't get along, had given them the few items they wanted before she died. Celeste said that unless I wanted to clean out the house myself, they would be happy to turn it over to one of the people who specialized in estate sales. Probably the antiques dealers would take a few pieces my grandfather had inherited from his parents, and the rest would be thrown away or given to orphans.
"Which orphans?" I asked.
"Whichever ones they have up there," Celeste said. Then, as if she realized that she'd overplayed her frustration at not having been able to reach me, she asked, "Since when do you like camping?"
"I always liked camping."
"Since I was a kid."
Celeste hesitated. "Think it over," she said, "but don't take too long. The real-estate agent says our best chance of selling is before the ski season starts."
Our conversation ended awkwardly, and I stood in my kitchen, not sure what to do next. Eight hours ago, I'd been sitting in the middle of a desert, eating instant oatmeal from a plastic cup and watching the remains of a giant wooden structure called the Exosphere smolder. Now my grandfather was dead, and Celeste wanted me to return to Thebes, where I hadn't been for ten years. It was as if my life had cut abruptly from one record to another, and my thoughts were still dancing to the wrong beat: that was the image that occurred to me after three days of watching DJs perform at the festival. I tried to feel grief at my grandfather's death. I tried to imagine him dying, to see him being buried, but all I could see was Nevada, the long line of the horizon with sharp brown mountains rising up in the distance. A silver pinwheel turned slowly in the wind. I wondered if I was all right, if there was something wrong with me. It's a question I've been asking myself a lot recently, and the answer I keep coming up with is, yes, something is wrong.
SAN FRANCISCO, CITY OF GHOSTS
I had been living in San Francisco at that point for seven years, an amount of time that has always seemed to me to have magical properties. Tannhäuser lives in the Venusberg for seven years and Hans Castorp spends seven years on the magic mountain; there are the seven fat years and the seven lean years of Pharaoh's dream, not to mention the seven-year itch and the seven-year ache. As the seven-year mark approached I found myself thinking about leaving the city. I thought about going back to the East Coast, and even considered living in New York again, although the forbidding presence of my mothers on the Upper West Side acted as a repelling magnet and sent my thoughts farther afield, to Europe, where we had almost moved, once, or to Canada, where I'd heard it was possible to live well for not very much money, and where the politics weren't so frightening. In the end I made no plans to go anywhere, and the only result of all my thinking was that I ceased to do many of the things I had once enjoyed. I didn't go to the Blue Study on Thursday nights; I didn't assume the pose of a dog, a tree, a monkey or a corpse at the Yoga Tree on Valencia Street; I didn't take my bicycle and ride out to the ocean, the way I had almost every week when I first moved to the city. Overall, my life in San Francisco was so greatly reduced that it felt like an afterlife, as though I were a ghost condemned to remain in the city until I accomplished a particular task, or got someone to accomplish it for me. I wondered how long I could go on living like that. Quite long, probably. San Francisco is a good city to be a ghost in. My upstairs neighbor, Robert, had lived in his apartment for many years before I moved in. He saw no one and never went out; on Saturday nights he snorted cocaine and listened to Dylan at top volume until one of the people downstairs complained. He worked at home, proofreading legal documents that appeared on his doorstep and were taken away by messengers whom neither of us ever saw. Once a month his ex-wife brought a little girl to visit him, I think it was his daughter. Sometimes I saw the three of them in the park, the daughter holding the mother's hand and Robert walking beside her, stiff and serious, like a decrepit hippie bodyguard. The ex-wife and the girl were gone by nightfall; on those nights Dylan was always singing, and no one had the heart to ask Robert to turn the music down. I worried that I might become like him if I stayed in San Francisco too long. Or that I might be like that already. More than once, when I ran into a neighbor, I found myself cringing, as though the fact that I used to have a life was somehow visiblealthough if that was how ghosts really felt then they would never show themselves. They would wait in their attics, work their ghost jobs, and wait for their real after-lives to begin.
I came home from the festival on Sunday night. The next day was a holiday, and because I still didn't know what to do, I went for a walk. The air was hot, and the sky was the bright, uninterrupted blue you get in San Francisco in the late summer, a sky so blue it looks opaque, as though it were just a shell hung over the city, hiding the real weather. It was the end of Labor Day weekend and the Mission was quiet. It made me think of when I first came to the city, before the boom of the nineties, when this had been a savage neighborhood, where crazy people and heroin addicts sat at the mouths of alleys, looking up at you with flat, hurtful eyes. Then money came and swept those people away; it replaced them with stores specializing in a single brand of shoe, and restaurants named with a compound of the word fire. Now, in September 2000, the restaurants were in trouble. Signs in their windows offered seven-dollar lunch specials and still no one came to fill their chrome-edged tables, their cushioned nooks. I walked up to Dolores Park, which was empty, apart from some children swinging in the playground and a handful of dogs wearied by the hot weather, walking around with their heads down, like people looking for change in the grass. From the top of the park I could see downtown San Francisco, the gray towers of the Bay Bridge, the brownish line of Berkeley beyond. And beyond that was all of California, Nevada, Utah, et cetera, all the way to New York State, to Thebes. But my ambivalence about San Francisco had vanished as I climbed the hill; the city was beautiful and I wanted to live there forever. I sat on a bench, relieved that I had come home from the festival when I didif I'd returned a day earlier I would have had to bundle myself onto a plane for the funeral. My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was Alice, my ex-girlfriend, calling to see if I was back yet.
"I'm back," I said, "but my grandfather died."
I told her what had happened, and how my mothers had the funeral without me because of Marie's job at S.
"God, how vile," Alice said. "Do you want to come over?"
Alice and I had broken up months before, but we still saw each other more often than we saw anyone else, or at least, I saw her more often than I saw anyone except my coworkers. Our conversations were frequently difficult, but Alice was the only person who made me feel solid. If we threw ourselves together at least a collision would happen.
"I'm tired," I said, "I want to stay in my neighborhood. Do you want to come here?"
"You're so far away," Alice said.
I lived twenty minutes from her by foot, or half an hour on the bus. Finally we agreed to meet at the Doghouse, a bar halfway between her apartment and mine. It looked like bikers went there, so no one else went, though in fact the bikers didn't go there either.
For a long time, from when I was very little and don't remember years or stories, until I was thirteen, I spent every summer with my grandparents in Thebes. My mothers would have preferred to send me somewhere else, but they didn't have the money for summer camp, and the free day programs in New York were frightening: this was the scary seventies, when the city was almost bankrupt and you could get attacked with a knife on the Upper West Side in the daytime. But I couldn't just stay at home, because there was nothing for me to do, and my mothers wanted a vacation from being parents, a job neither of them had ever wanted to turn into a career. The summer was their time to make art, which was what they really did: Celeste was a sculptor and Marie took photographs. So, Thebes. I looked forward to it every year as soon as the trees began to blossom in Riverside Park. They produced flowers and I produced memories: of the man-made lake with the sandy beach, of the green mountains that rose up on either side of town, the stream, or kill, that ran through the middle of it, the old wooden bridge that crossed the stream, and the cool hollow under the bridge. I remembered the Regenzeit children who lived next door to my grandparents, Kerem and Yesim, pronounced YAY-shum, which were Turkish names because their parents were Turkish although they, the children, had grown up in the U. S. of A. The first days of spring tortured me; the future tied my thought in knots. By the time June came around, I watched my mothers as a hungry dog watches its humans, waiting for the sign that it was time for me to go. But my mothers were proud. They ran away from Thebes when they were seventeen, and had vowed never to go back; sending me to stay with my grandparents wasn't breaking their promise, exactly, but it was close, and their way of keeping themselves aloof from this difficult fact was to pretend that it wouldn't happen.
"I hear they cleaned up the Y," Marie said one year. "It has a new swimming pool. Maybe you'd like to give it a try?" I told her the story I'd heard at school about a kid who went into that pool and didn't come out again. "Hm," Marie said, and the Y took its place again at the end of the alphabet. School ended and the real hot weather came. The windows were always open; our living room became a big, dusty receiver for the dramas broadcast from the street. The Celestes sprawled in side-by-side chairs in front of the electric fan, waiting for it to be night. They talked about the opening they'd gone to in SoHo, the artist who'd got the show by sleeping with the dealer, the writer who'd written about the show but didn't know what the word lacuna meant. Just when I thought they had forgotten about me completely, suddenly they turned to each other, their mirror-faces wrinkled by mirror-frowns, and one said to the other, "Don't you think it's time to send him to Thebes?"
SAN FRANCISCO, CITY OF GHOSTS
The Doghouse was crowded with Labor Day drinkers trying noisily to give substance to the illusion that San Francisco had had a summer. There was a back patio with a phenomenal view of the underside of Highway 101; as traffic whooshed by overhead, I told Alice how my mothers wanted me to pack up my grandparents' house.
"Don't they live in New York?" Alice asked. "Let them do it."
"They don't like the house. They hate going there."
"Too bad for them."
Alice had never met my mothers, but over the years she had acquired a kind of sympathetic dislike for them, which I sometimes felt guilty about instilling in her. She would have told me to stand up to them even if she liked them better, though: Alice was in favor of standing up to people. She stood up to her professors at Berkeley, who thought that a nobody girl from the Central Valley couldn't know anything about American lit; she stood up to her college boyfriend, who was just a version, she realized afterward, of her Christ-nut father; and she stood up to me.
"Don't worry," I said, "I'm not going."
We got drinks and alit on a free table out back. "How was the festival?" Alice asked.
"Windy," I said. "There were dust storms." Alice hated dirt; she was the only person I knew in San Francisco with white wall-to-wall carpet in her apartment.
"That must have been tricky when you were tripping your brains out."
"Ha. We didn't do drugs, just some pot." I had, in fact, taken a mescaline derivative, synthesized by a friend of Star's, which made everything give off blue sparks, as if the landscape were effervescing in the cold night air, but I didn't want Alice to be jealous.
"I see." Wary of learning more than she wanted to know, she changed the subject. "Were you close to your grandfather?"
"I wouldn't say close. I spent the summers with him when I was a kid, but he wasn't easy to know." I told Alice about the basement workshop where my grandfather restored old tables and chairs, or rather, given that nothing he touched ever returned to anything like the life it once had, it might be more accurate to say that he reincarnated them. When confronted with an old table, unsteady on its feet, topped with warped boards that had begun to detach from one another, his ordinarily serious face would soften, and as he stroked the table's uneven surface he'd murmur, "Good grain. Good wood." I knew what was going to happen: the table would come home with us; we'd carry it into the garage, where it would linger until my grandfather tried to correct its irregularities or it fell apart of its own accord, which amounted to more or less the same thing. Even then he would save the timbers that hadn't rotted or been planed down to nothing. "Might patch something with these," he'd say. "It's good wood."
"He sounds sweet," Alice said.
"He wasn't. Kind, sure. But not sweet." Every year, he had sent me the same card on my birthday, with a picture of a Japanese fisherman in a little boat caught in the crook of an enormous wave, and each year the message inside the card was shorter. The last of the cards came just a month before he died. Happy birthday to my great grandson, it read, which confused me, because I was only his grandson. Finally I'd decided that he must have preferred the pun to the reality of the situation, but still, as a grandson, it made me feel less than great.
There was nothing to say about that, though, so I asked Alice how she was doing with her LSAT review class and she told me the class was for idiots, and I said yes, the point is they make an idiot out of you, and she scowled at me and said she knew some lawyers who were very intelligent. Until earlier that year, Alice had been an editor for a company in Mountain View that made Web browsers, but she'd been laid off along with half the people who worked there, so for the last three or four months she'd been freelancing, which meant spending her severance pay while she decided what to do next. She wasn't certain she'd apply to law school; other prospects beckoned with lovely phantom hands. She might become a massage therapist, or teach English to businessmen in Japan.
The wind picked up, chilling the patio, driving the summer drinkers indoors. Alice said she ought to go home, she had to get up early the next morning.
"Have dinner with me," I suggested.
We argued for a little while, but it really was getting cold out, and Alice agreed to a Thai place next to my apartment. I put my arm around her and we walked back to the Mission as the fog came in over our heads, white rags of mist flying past like foam in a fast stream, covering up the empty sky.
After dinner we went to my apartment and sat in the kitchen drinking whiskey. "I don't want to get drunk," Alice said, "I've got yoga in the morning."
"I don't either." I poured myself another drink and Alice motioned for me to pour her another also.
"Tell me about the music," she said. "Who was there?"
I mentioned people we'd heard at the Sno-Drop, at the Red Room. That was again an omission. Pearl Fabula had played at the festival, but I hoped Alice didn't know. We'd gone to hear Pearl too many times together before he became famous and left San Francisco.
"Ugh, Lorin," Alice said. "That guy's too ironic for me."
We talked about how it had been all the way back in 1998, when we saw Hope Sandoval dancing next to us at Liquid, and the DJ from Portishead spun a set at the Blue Study, and how we'd gone to see Pearl when he played the impossible sample from Lady Di in the car. Dodi ... Dodi ... But we couldn't stay in those memories for long. Soon we were talking about the signs that our music was in decline: the burly fraternity types we had seen dancing the pogo at an Underworld show, the long line of high school kids outside Community on Wednesday nights, the various laws that Congress was preparing to close the dance clubs down, Junior Vasquez selling CD players and Moby selling cars, the tendency of money to ruin everything.
"I feel like DJ culture is played out," Alice said. Which I thought was her way of saying, I wish I had gone to Nevada.
"You may be right," I said, "but what's next?"
"I don't know. There's got to be something."
Our faces touched. We kissed, we dug our fingers into each other's backs. We made love and it was just the way I remembered it, not from the last, grudging months, nor from the beginning, when our sex was wild and tentative, like a dream you don't want to write down for fear of losing track of its form, but from the middle of the relationship, however long that lasted, a year, a month. It was a solid thing, like putting two puzzle pieces together the right way, that gave us a glimpse of a larger picture, as yet unfinished. Then we fell asleep. I woke up at one-thirty in the morning with a headache. Alice's back was to me, her kinky blond hair spread out on the comforter. I thought of the foam on the crest of the wave on my grandfather's cards. For years the fisherman had been waiting for that wave to break, and it never had. I used to want it to break, not because I wanted the fisherman to drown, but so that he wouldn't have to wait any longer. I closed my eyes and imagined it breaking, a dark-blue wave with streaks of black in it, edged with white foam, crashing over the stern of the little boat, and afterward, when there was nothing to look at but blue water and wreckage, a timber, an oar. I opened my eyes. Alice was still there. The wave hadn't broken yet and maybe it never would.
Thebes was never what my memories made it. My grandmother was a good cook but she loved her garden too well, and served us vegetables that only a mother could love, worm-holed lettuces, cracked tomatoes, small starchy beans. My grandfather was frequently in a bad mood and spent whole days in his workshop, sawing and pounding some hapless antique into submission. I played with Kerem and Yesim, the children next door, but this too had its perils. There was bad blood between the Rowlands and the Regenzeits: my grandfather had sued Joe Regenzeit before I was born, and lost. Regenzeit owned the Snowbird ski resort, a couple of bald stripes shaved into the side of a mountain just past the west end of town, and the lawsuit was in some way connected to the resort, but I couldn't guess how. My grandparents didn't even own skis. It was bad enough that the Regenzeits lived next door, that my grandmother had to watch Mrs. Regenzeit gardening when she was in her garden, that my grandfather had to speak to Joe Regenzeit at town meetings, but when I went over to play with the Regenzeit children, it was too much, it was Montague cozying up to Capulet. If only there had been anyone else for me to play with, my grandparents would have forbidden me to see Kerem and Yesim, but there wasn't anyone else, apart from a few strange children who haunted the steps of the public library, children no one knew and no one wanted me to know. Although I would know them, later on.
I wasn't in love with Yesim at firstthat came laterbut from the very beginning I liked the ordinariness of the Regenzeits' lives. The furniture in their house was all brand-new; they had a glass-topped dinner table, which I found fascinating, and a spotless white sofa where children were not allowed to sit. Kerem and Yesim had only one mother, the formidable Mrs. Regenzeit, who was barely five feet tall, wore a pink jogging suit, and spent her days talking on the telephone. I don't know who she called, or who called her, but her remarks were merciless. "I don't give one shit about that," she said, stabbing the air with a long cigarette stained red with her lipstick. "You tell him I am fucking pissed off." She had an accent that made shit into sheet and pissed into peaced, a Turkish accent, I assumed, but later I learned that it was German. Mrs. Regenzeit wasn't fierce to me; she daubed iodine on the blood that welled up when I cut myself; she fed me plates of strange Turkish cookies. Then there was Mr. Regenzeit, an ordinary father, the only one I knew. He was a short, muscular man who spent most of his time at work. Later I'd learn that he was not ordinarybut what did I know about fathers? I thought they were all like that, compact, fussy men who reserved Friday afternoons to teach their children the customs of their native land. As a non-Turk, I was sent home, and it was only when I came to the other side of the fence that separated our houses, and saw my grandmother kneeling in the garden, and heard my grandfather sawing in his workshop, that I remembered the bad blood.
"You'd better wash up," my grandmother called to me, although our dinner would not be for a while yet. I went to the bathroom and rubbed my hands under the faucet for a long time, thinking about blood, blood and fathers.
SAN FRANCISCO, CITY OF GHOSTS
Alice left at six-thirty the next morning for yoga. Now that she was unemployed she clung even more fiercely to a schedule than she had when she was working. I got up an hour later, made coffee, and sat looking out the window at the parking lot behind my building. Norman Mailer's car was parked just beneath my window, its royal-blue roof spotted with pigeon shit. When I bought the car from Peter, the owner of the used-book store down the street, I planned to take all kinds of trips: up to Seattle, down to Los Angeles, and farther south, into Mexico, where I had never been. But in fact I had been no farther away than Point Reyes, two hours north of the city, where Alice and I camped in the state forest one foggy summer weekend. Idly, like an astronomer thinking about some distant eclipse, I wondered how hard it would be to drive to Thebes. I looked in a road atlas and discovered that, thanks to Interstate 80, driving from San Francisco to upstate New York was ridiculously easy. Once you crossed the Bay Bridge, you had to make a total of three turns before you pulled into my grandfather's driveway. I estimated that the trip would take about four and a half days, then I took a shower and left for work.
Cetacean Solutions, LLC, a provider of content-management solutions (a.k.a. laboriously customized databases) to enterprise clients (a.k.a. businesses), was in a slump. All spring we had been overrun by orders, which we worked ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day to fill, but in the fourth quarter of 2000 the orders suddenly ceased. Cetacean, which our company's logo instructed us to picture as a mighty whale diving deep into the ocean, presumably to do battle with the giant squid of unmanaged user content, now seemed less like a whale than like a whaling ship roaming an ocean from which whales had largely vanished. Dave, our captain, sent the sales team to the top of the mizzenmast to scan the water with their telescopes; meanwhile on deck the engineers mended the boats, sharpened the harpoons and polished the brass fittings. Even the maintenance work we did for our existing clients had slowed to almost nothing by August. It was like the middle of Moby-Dick: no whale in sight, only occasional contact with another passing ship, and nothing to fill the time except digression. Our office, a converted Victorian on the eastern flank of Potrero Hill, within sniffing distance of the Anchor Brewery, had a Fun Room in the basement: a brightly carpeted lounge where, in busy times, we rested our brains while playing ping-pong or foosball. Now that there was no work and our days could, in theory, have been all fun, the Fun Room had taken on a new, sinister purpose. Every third or fourth day we assembled there for an all-hands meeting on a different theme: Defining Standards in Code Creation, Measuring the User Experience, Working in the Cloud. Employees with vacation days suddenly experienced a desire to go on vacation; those without them petitioned for unpaid leave. I was hoping that when I came back from the desert meaningful work would be in sight, but on Tuesday morning I found Mac, my boss, looking at boat trailers on the Internet. He didn't own a car, much less a boat, but there was something about the structure of the boat trailer that interested him, he said, something about the way it suggested absent realities. I asked if there was going to be a meeting.
"Will you look at this thing," Mac said. "This is for sure a nuclear-sub trailer."
"What happened to the sub," I asked, "that it's for sale?"
He thought about this. "Maybe there are no bridges rated for sub transport."
We fell together into silent estimation of submarine tonnage vs. bridge loads, then Mac snorted and switched to his e-mail. "All-hands meeting at eleven."
"What's the topic?"
"Hydration for Performance," he read off the screen. "Did you know that twenty percent of human fatigue is caused by improper or insufficient hydration? An optimal fluid-consumption program developed by NASA for long-duration space missions will be presented. But, aren't astronauts catheterized?"
"Does it matter?"
I groaned at his pun and went down to the Fun Room to get a free Coke. I twiddled the handles of the foosball machine. Something had to happen, I thought. Any minute the cry would go up from the lookouts and someone would claim the gold doubloon nailed to the mast, but nothing happened, nothing at all. Eventually I heard people coming down the stairs for the performance-hydration meeting, and slipped out the fire exit.
I took my filthy festival clothes to the laundromat, and while they washed I called Alice. The call went straight to voicemail, and I left a message, asking her whether what had happened last night meant that we were on again, whether she wanted to be on again, what being on again might mean. I went across the street and bought an iced coffee, and while I was standing outside the laundromat drinking my coffee, I saw a man in a green Army jacket crossing Seventeenth Street. From the back he looked like Swan, a homeless man who used to distribute leaflets in my neighborhood. For years I saw him every day, handing out his leaflets, or typing them, or feeding the pigeons who were his other chief occupation. He was angry, dirty, taciturn and paranoid, but at the same time he was completely extraordinary. It was as if mysterious powers had put a lighthouse in the Mission, a strange beacon left over from an era when people traveled differently and different things mattered. Like a lighthouse, Swan stood all by himself, marking a place no one else had reachedwarning us off, I sometimes thought, and sometimes I thought, inviting us to follow him. Swan disappeared in the winter of 1997. My friends held a rally to protest the city's policy of driving its homeless citizens from gentrifying neighborhoods like ours, but it didn't bring Swan back. That was when my life in San Francisco began to feel ghostly. And now, I thought, here he was, as if nothing had happened! "Swan!" I cried, and I ran after him. The old man was quick; I didn't catch up with him until Church Street. And of course it was someone else. Swan was gone.
I went back to the laundromat and retrieved my clothes from the dryer. I carried the clean clothes back to my apartment, but now my apartment itself looked wrong. The living room contained only a coffee table and an ancient red futon; the dining room had an even older sofa, a TV set, and a white imitation bearskin rug that my ex-housemate Victor had inherited from an uncle in Moscow. When Alice and I were going out, she nagged me to redecorate, but I said I liked my old things. "Your things aren't old," she said, "they're just ugly." She was right, but I refused to see it. Whenever she pointed out a chair or table or sofa in the window of a store downtown and said, "Why don't you get one of those?" I objected that it wouldn't go with the furniture I already had, even though nothing would have gone with my furniture. It was a question of living with it or replacing everything. That afternoon I considered replacing everything; there was a store on Seventeenth and Valencia that catered to people like me, bohemian types who had a little money, and if I had gone there, everything might have turned out differently. The desperation of my heart, the feeling of loss that I still couldn't connect to my grandfather's death, all that emotion might have resolved itself in a sofa and loveseat, a leather armchair, a media center made from salvaged pine flooring. I might be in San Francisco now, living with Alice in my redecorated apartment; we might be happy together. But in fact I didn't have the energy or the will to buy furniture, and here I am in New York, living with a stranger.
I went out for a super vegetarian burrito, came home, opened a beer and took it into my study, which was cluttered with books and papers from the days when I had been a graduate student in history at Stanford, the pre-Cetacean era. Now I didn't use the study for anything; on the whole it depressed me. I rummaged through the drawers of my fireproof filing cabinet for Swan's leaflets, hoping that his talk of laser wolves and spirit flight and the Coming of the Great Ghosts would somehow cheer me up, but what I found were the notes for my dissertation. They were the opposite of what I wanted, but I was in that totally exhausted state where you don't think clearly and your goals and objectives shift around like shadows, leading you from one bad idea to the next. Soon I was leafing through xeroxed microfilms of nineteenth-century newspapers, my annotations squiggling past in the margins like flipbook animations. Was there any use for this stuff, I wondered, or was it just lost time, and not even lost time in the Proustian sense, time that comes surging back to you out of a cup of cooling tea, but time truly squandered, irrecoverable, lost to a kind of academic coma? My head hurt just thinking about it. I left the papers heaped on the desk and went to bed, and the last thing I noticed before I fell asleep was that Robert was playing "Positively 4th Street" upstairs at top volume, and that I didn't care.
THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT
My dissertation was, or would have been, about the "doom-minded Millerites," a group of radical Protestants who believed the world would end in 1843. They were named for William Miller, a New York State farmer who had added up the years of the prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation, according to a complex and not obviously correct system of his own, and fixed 1843 as the deadline for the apocalypse. Tens of thousands of people were convinced by his calculations, and as the final year approached they prayed and read and danced themselves into a frenzy of anticipated salvation. But the world did not end. Late in the year one of Miller's disciples added up the numbers again, and concluded that the world would end on October 22, 1844. On that day, somewhere between fifty thousand and half a million Millerites gathered in churches, on hilltops and in cemeteries. They sang; they prayed; they waited. Nothing happened. Eventually they returned home to sleep.
After the Great Disappointment, as the day when the world didn't end came to be known, most of the Millerites renounced their faith and went on with their lives. Some recalculated the date of the apocalypse: it was going to happen in 1846, or 1853, or, anyway, soon. And a few asserted that Jesus had come back, and that he'd shut the doors of salvation to all unbelieversin other words, to anyone who wasn't them. Believing that their souls were out of danger, they gave themselves over to free love and "promiscuous foot-washing," something I've always wondered about. For these "shut-door" Millerites, the world had ended; what they continued to experience was only a sort of appendix to history, in which a few problems that remained obscure in the body of the text would be resolved. What led these otherwise reasonable people to believe that the world was going to end, that it had ended? It was an interesting question.
SAN FRANCISCO, CITY OF GHOSTS
I woke up at dawn the next day, to the sound of a fire truck headed east on Sixteenth Streetfor some reason they always went east. My body hurt with tiredness, but I dragged myself out of bed, made coffee and began mechanically to put my notes back in their filing cabinet; then with a sudden rush of resentment I carried the files downstairs and dumped them in the recycling bin. I went upstairs, put my clean laundry in the bag I'd just unpacked and wrote an e-mail to Mac, saying that an emergency had come up and I needed two weeks off. I left Alice a message, threw out the uneaten food in my refrigerator, emptied the trash and carried my bag down to Norman Mailer's car.
Four days and three turns later I was in Thebes.
Copyright © 2011 by Paul La Farge
Reading Group Guide
1. If you have looked at the Luminous Airplanes web site, how is reading the story online different from reading it in book form? Why do you think the author chose to make Luminous Airplanes both a web site and a book, rather than just a book (or just a web site)?
2. The narrator of Luminous Airplanes is never namedeither in the book or on the Web. Does this change the way you understand his character? What effect, if any, does his being nameless have on the way you read his story?
3. Luminous Airplanes is about a young man who has to sort through his grandparents' belongings after his grandfather's death. Sorting through the things a relative has left behind is an experience many people have, and it's also an experience with many different emotional resonances. What does sorting mean for the narrator of this novel?
4. Luminous Airplanes is set in the fall of 2000, but parts of the book concern other times: the late 1960s, when the narrator's father came to the town of Thebes; the 1840s, when the Millerites believed that the world was coming to an end. Does the narrator see some continuity between these times? In your opinion, is he correct? Do his ideas about history tell you anything about him as a character?
5. In the middle of the book, Yesim, the narrator's friend, talks about the moment in her childhood when she realized that "the spirit of Thebes, and maybe America in general, loves failure more than it loves success." Does that make sense to you as a description of America's national character (if it has one)? Most of the characters in Luminous Airplanes are failures, in one way or anotheris failure more interesting than success?
6. Why is this book called Luminous Airplanes? What part does the idea of flying (or trying to get off the ground) have in shaping the story?
7. Why does the book end where it does? Does the ending make you think differently about the story the narrator has told?
8. One of the themes of Luminous Airplanes is the danger of reliving the past. And yet nostalgia is a common experience; surely there are people who would revisit parts of their own lives, if they could. Does the novel give you any ideas about how to live (or not to live) with your own past, or with some larger history?