During the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival, a sound mixer named Eric Masunaga sat in an Austin bar talking about an indie film project on which he'd worked. He used the term "mumblecore" to describe it. The name stuck, as a descriptor of a group of filmmakers and an aesthetic reaching critical mass over the last decade.
Mumblecore's hallmarks include mise en scenes featuring underemployed and overeducated white twentysomethings in genteelly impoverished apartments talking and occasionally falling into bed with each other.
Yearning is a key component, but rarely are characters able to articulate what they yearn for, and in general they're not driven by passions or any urge to change the world or, often, even any desire to make a mark in it. They are often neither rebellious nor artistic, although they might get into some poetic messes. According to New Yorker film critic David Denby (source of the Masunaga story), "the movies tell stories but they're also a kind of lyrical documentary of American stasis and inarticulateness."
"Luminous Airplanes" is literary mumblecore.
As Denby also said, it's not the conversation that the name describes, it's the emotion. And inchoate, ambiguous emotion is one of the central threads of Paul La Farge's novel, set at the tech-boom cusp of the 21st century. It's an episodic first-person story told in flashbacks and a front story by a guy in his late 20s who grew up in the mythically named upstate New York town of Thebes, and in New York City, and went West to pursue a Ph.D. in history at Stanford.
Then he decided he "didn't believe in history" and joined a San Francisco tech firm -- following up on a lifelong affinity for writing code -- as a "content manager."
Then, his grandfather died in Thebes and he was asked by his "mothers" -- twin sisters named Marie Celeste and Celeste Marie, one of whom bore him out of wedlock -- to travel to their mutual hometown to pack up and sell the ancestral house. He returns, falls into a vat of ennui, is fired from his tech job, reconnects with his past via Thebes and begins an at least metaphorical search for his father, a charismatic older man who impregnated the teenage Marie and then vanished. In the course of cleaning out the old house, he comes to know his father for the first time.
Drift is the operative verb governing most of the narrator's adult life, although it's a deceptive kind of privileged, consequence-less drift, in which choice seems often to be, if not whimsical, driven by momentary impulses or avoidance, and the aftermath usually involves a cushioned fall, or just a change of phase for the narrator. There's an innocent quality to the narrator: whether that's childlike or childish, charming, maddening, cliched, or not, is another story -- although the tone and structure here seem to indicate that the narrator's variety of retreats is to be seen as romantic, or an appropriate response to an inappropriate world.
The epigraph that begins the book is " 'Run!' -- Hal Hartley." (Hartley is the indie film director whose films are perhaps one of the precursors of mumblecore.)
"I had just come from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died." So things begin.
The narrator drives his car -- previously owned briefly by Norman Mailer and bought from a bookstore owner -- East. He explores his family's past and his own, reconnecting in Thebes with childhood neighbors, brother and sister Kerem and Yesim Regenzeit, who stayed in the town.
The two families' history twines together because of a long and bitter lawsuit brought by the grandfather against the Regenzeit parents, who opened a ski resort that the grandfather believed changed the weather in town. The grandfather's lawyer and friend who argued the suit is the narrator's father.
The narrator and Yesim, who's a fragile and sex-addicted former poet and depressive, fall into a doomed affair, which seems to be the point of the book's machinery, after which she runs away to Turkey.
Much is potentially portentous and symbolic as the tale unwinds. However, these images and plot points don't cohere into anything in particular -- for example, the narrator's abandoned Ph.D. research, about a 19th century Midwestern end-of-the-world cult; a favorite book about the pre-20th century pioneers of aviation, from which his grandfather read both to him and to his mothers; his mythic lawyer father who it turns out went West and got spiritual; Swan, the San Francisco homeless man preaching salvation and destruction who is about the same age as his father would be; or, the Day of Rage, when he and a group of San Francisco friends produced a free concert with speeches for which no one showed up and that ended not in rage but in running away. As Yesim says to the narrator, "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're not very frightening."
Running away -- those who don't, and those who do and what happens to each -- is one of the themes here, in the narrator's amalgam of solipsistic self-flagellation and deadpan pronouncements about life, people and the world that are often poetic, but mostly not all that profound.
Then planes fly into buildings Sept. 11, 2001, and the former computer-programmer and former history student ends the story saying "and I sat there, staring at the screen, trying to figure out what was going on": a guy defined by a variety of willful cluelessness continuing to rely on what's helped him not navigate his life. Maybe. And that's the end.
"Luminous Airplanes" feels more like time spent in an airport than time spent flying. Maybe more interesting than the book itself is a companion web site offering a "hyper-romance" version of the novel, with back story and other media and a latticework of paths to take through the narrative.
Ed Taylor is a Buffalo freelance writer and critic.
By Paul La Farge
Farrar Straus Giroux242 pages, $25