Groups that had reason to be hopeful in 1992 included the Federal Reserve, the Chicago Bulls, Democrats and Internet pioneers. Among this last faction were readers and writers in the burgeoning field of electronic literature, which promised to liberate narrative from the prison of print and replace the limitations of traditional, consecutive sentence-blocks with a model more befitting the Information Age: hypertext fiction (or hyperfiction). This new genre’s networks of links — the so-called ‘lexias’ first postulated by Roland Barthes in his seminal “S/Z” — along with its extra-linear narrative and claims of infinite possibility for the enterprising reader were, ever so briefly, the end of the world as we knew it.
Hypertext was conspicuously ahead of its time in 1992. Less than two years after the debut of the World Wide Web, one year before the first issue of Wired, hypertext radiated cyberpunk chic and had the support of an esteemed postmodernist, Robert Coover, who wrote an article for the New York Times titled “The End of Books.” Coover championed hypertext as “true freedom from the tyranny of the line,” “a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal,” and the next step in “the subversion of the traditional bourgeois novel and in fictions that challenge linearity.” By far the best known manifesto on behalf of hyperfiction, “The End of Books” set the standard for the kind of future-of-print articles trotted out at every leap forward in the digitalization of the written word, from the rise of paywalls to the Kindle. But for an untried, manifestly experimental form, it contributed to expectations that were more like hyper without the r, expectations that it has struggled to surpass ever since.
One reason that the theoretical work on hypertext so quickly overpowered the work it was nominally glossing might be that so many of the canonical hypertexts come off as anticipating, if not obsessed by, their own novelty. There’s generally no fourth wall to break, and, for today’s reader, fluent in Wikipedia’s associative rabbit holes, the original material has all the replay value of Pong. Plagued by public indifference and a sea of dead links, hypertext novels never vanished per se; but their reputation wound up consigned to a custodial community of specialists. Looking back at what was supposed to be the future, the pervading aroma is of retro-futurism, not unlike the rides at Disney’s Tomorrowland, the first charming forays into computer animation and the synthesizer bridges on Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love.”
So there is something simultaneously precocious and curiously regressive about the fact that Paul La Farge’s new novel “Luminous Airplanes,” has been issued as both a traditional hardcover novel and as an online “immersive text” — with hyperlinked words, nested stories and diversions that not only act as a corollary to the published material (all of which will eventually be available online), but bend it beyond the capacities of straightforward narrative.
Certainly, the fit between form and content could hardly be more on theme: Set in September 2000 amid the last gasp of millennial, ecstasy-fueled optimism, “Luminous Airplanes” concerns a young Silicon Valley programmer (or “provider of content-management solutions”) who returns from Burning Man to learn that his grandfather has died, necessitating a journey to the Catskills village of his youth to wrestle with personal demons and his abandoned dissertation on the Millerite doomsday cult.
Logging on to luminousairplanes.com (which adds the subtitle “a hyperromance”) for the first time, there’s every reason to mistake it for an ironic, if amiable, throwback to the days when hypertext seemed an inevitable rebuff to print. Instead, “Luminous Airplanes” is the most successful instance of the form to date, with an eminently comprehensive design that learns all the right lessons from the Internet’s long adolescence — an interface reminiscent of the Kindle but with a better font, user-friendly bookmarks, inset photographs and illustrations, blog-like updates — and jettisons anything hostile to the pleasure of a good novel. And whether or not this is enough to coax a wide readership back to clicks and URLs, one thing’s for sure: Future lit/tech crossovers finally have a soaring prototype and solid argument for legitimacy as institution. And, unlike its printed and bound companion, the hypertext experience is free.
Whereas the older hypernovels featured branching, contradictory plots, luminousairplanes.com recognizes that indifference to reality comes off as indifference to the reader. Hence, a reader can log onto the site and learn the story of minor character Alice’s infinitely more minor ex-boyfriend Chris, who joined a cult called The Floaters; read roughly half an aborted novel about a bigamist named Othniel Rowland; sample excerpts from the narrator’s copy of “Progress in Flying Machines”; and delve into myriad crisscrossing back-stories and memories. But while the hypertext offers the opportunity for a deeper, perhaps stranger, and certainly less linear reading experience, the reader is powerless to alter the overall course of the story or delay the airplanes alluded to in the title from appearing over the New York skyline at the story’s conclusion.
Except that it isn’t actually the story’s conclusion, only the novel’s. Luminousairplanes.com’s timeline (neatly displayed at the upper left corner of the window) continues to the present day, with our narrator forced to dwell in the aftermath of what were formerly plot devices, by changing the subject, waxing philosophical and breaking down, all seemingly from another computer terminal. It mimics the experience of being inside another mind, fully subjected to the spasms, webs of associative memory and personal quirks that paper can’t fully capture.
As a pair, “Luminous Airplanes” and luminousairplanes.com triumph precisely by not being especially compatible. Both are essentially incomplete, since all the Internet’s reticulation remains a fatally divorced offshoot of the flesh, just as fiction is from reality, no more able to replace it than it is able to deliver it from circumstance. Whether La Farge’s two-part approach will resolve publishing’s differences with code or simply illuminate certain limitations and potentialities in print and the Web, the Luminous Airplanes project remains a startling vision. Not so much of things to come as of things that came or didn’t come at all — and of the role the past and future play in our fragmented present.