Paul La Farge is the author of two novels: The Artist of the Missing (FSG, 1999) and Haussmann, or the Distinction (FSG, 2001); and a book of imaginary dreams, The Facts of Winter. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Harper’s Magazine, Fence, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. His nonfiction appears in The Believer, Bookforum, Playboy, and Cabinet. He lives in upstate New York.
I first had the idea to make an immersive text back in the twentieth century. (I thought of it as a hypertext then, but we’ve since decided to call it an immersive text, to distinguish it from 1990s hypertext, about which see below.) I was working as a Web designer in San Francisco, which in those days was a job you could just kind of fall into. The skills you needed to make Web pages were arcane enough that most people didn’t want to learn them, but not so arcane that they were actually difficult, so I and some friends from Stanford (literature people: I’d just dropped out of their PhD program in Comp Lit) taught ourselves HTML and went into business. We rented an office in South Park, which was the epicenter of the tech industry in San Francisco. Everyone had a business plan. You couldn’t eat lunch in the park without overhearing someone’s scheme to monetize something by putting it on the Web. Once I went out to dinner with a friend, and the head of a software company offered us jobs, just because we were eating dinner in South Park and we looked kind of gangly. (Later the same guy ran off with his company’s money, so it’s just as well we turned him down.)
Anyway, South Park was sick with optimism about the future, and much as I liked to think that I was only a participant observer in the neighborhood delusion, the time came when I was possessed with the strange desire not only to write a novel but to put it online, and to take advantage of the possibilities of the digital medium to engage in new kinds of storytelling.
Two problems saved this project from early ruin. First, for all my dabbling in Web technology, I didn’t have the skills to build anything like what I had in mind, or the money to hire someone to build it for me; and second, I didn’t read the hypertext novels which had been published during the ’90s. The advantage of my first problem was that the project stagnated for several years. By the time I returned to it, in 2005, I had written the novel which would become Luminous Airplanes, and which serves as the trunk or backbone of the immersive text. I’d also lost my goggle-eyed (or Google-eyed?) enthusiasm for the new: the boom of the ’90s had given way to a bust, which September 11th blew apart, so that finally I had to look around at the world which had been going about its own business on the far side of the South Park bubble. So Luminous Airplanes is a hopeful book in some ways, a somber one in others: it looks back on the world from which it was born with as much distance, and wisdom, as I’ve been able to scrape together, and if it doesn’t pump its fictive fists in the air and proclaim the arrival of a New Way of Reading, maybe in the end that’s to its credit.
To call my ignorance of prior hypertexts (since corrected: I have done my homework) an advantage may sound arrogant, but the truth is, the ’90s hypertexts were, like the covered wagons of the pioneers, bumpy going. One reason why hypertext fiction did not revolutionize the way we read back in 1996 may be that the early hypertexts depended too much on the novelty of the technology to sustain the reader’s interest, whereas my sense is that the opposite is true. You have to pay as much attention to the writing of a hypertext as you would to the writing of a novel, or more attention, really, because novels produce a kind of natural engrossment, whereas online you’re always struggling to hold people’s attention. (Another reason for hypertext’s early disappointment was certainly the low-resolution screens of the ’90s, and the nonexistence of the Kindle and iPad.) With the exception of Geoff Ryman’s excellent Web-based novel 253, the models for Luminous Airplanes were printed books: Tristram Shandy, Pale Fire, Hopscotch, Jacques Roubaud’s heartbreaking and wonderful novel The Great Fire of London, the endnotes to Infinite Jest. Proust. Each time I look at one of those books, I’m reminded that not everything has to be reinvented—Sterne knew a lot about hypertext, and so did Proust, in his own way. A lot of what I’ve done in Luminous Airplanes is at best cribbing from them.
I’m not finished with the immersive text, and it may be some time before it is finished, but at least it has now reached the point where you can look at it, which is something of a relief. I’m tired of explaining it to friendly strangers: “Well, I’m working on this thing on the Web . . .”—feeling all the while like a mad scientist talking about the army of robots he’s building in the garage. Now I can give out the URL. I still don’t know if Luminous Airplanes “works” artistically, the way a novel works (or doesn’t work), or even mechanically, the way an airplane works (or doesn’t). Not enough people have read it yet. But for me, it feels like the right way, and maybe the only way, to have told this story, which is about San Francisco in the ’90s, and invention, and failure, and caves, and computers, and exploration, and failure, and hope.
“Thinking Outside the Book,” New York Observer, Sept. 15th, 2011