A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Atlantis. The lost continent. (A lost continent, anyway: there’s also Lemuria and Mu, about which even my high-school history teacher Mr. Savage said nothing.) In the summer of 2002, I went looking for Atlantis, and found it, almost, sort of. Do you want to hear the story? It’s a long story, but what else do I have to do tonight. It’s raining in New Haven, has been for days. The gutters are full of yellow leaves and the cars hiss as they pass on Orange Street. We aren’t underwater yet, but if the rain doesn’t stop… Anyway, it’s a good night to write about lost lands.

Like a lot of stories about people who believe odd things about the world, this one starts in the New York Public Library. In the spring and summer of 2001, I went to the main branch of the library on 42nd Street every day to work on my account of what had happened in Thebes, and as the months passed, I began to recognize the regulars. There was Porn Man, who used the library’s Internet terminals to look at pictures of men and women doing things to one another that no one, not even Porn Man, should have been allowed to watch; there was Mr. Port-Wine Stain; there was the guy with his own face printed as a sticker on the cover of his laptop; and there was Gladstone Fallows Junior, who is the hero of this story.

I first saw him in April: a fine day: he was throwing the corners of his sandwich to some pigeons in Bryant Park. A big fellow, six-three or six-four, with a swimmer’s shoulders and a sturdy square face. Black glasses and a black moustache squared off at the ends. He was wearing an olive Army coat, the kind Swan used to wear. I felt kindly toward him, and when I saw him in the library later on I was curious what had brought him there.

He was reading a massive Geschichte der verlorenen Länder bekannt vom griechischen Altertum, which means, History of Lost Lands Known to Greek Antiquity, and taking notes on index cards in pencil. The fact that the book was in German made me think that it must be about something serious: the lost lands of the title were probably the Minoans, or the Parthians, or one of the civilizations which were preserved in Greek historiography but lost with the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

The reading room shuffled us around; sometimes I lost track of Lost Lands Known to Greek Antiquity Man for weeks. Whenever I saw him, he was hard at work on his index cards. I was a little jealous of his concentration, and also of his physique: how could someone who spent so much time in the library have shoulders like that?

It wasn’t until March of 2002 that I finally spoke to him. By then my life had changed completely, everyone's life had changed. The world seemed smaller and people in New York City were approachable in a way that they hadn’t been before 9/11. So I said hello to Lost Lands Man, and asked how his research was going.

“Not research, search,” he said, his voice a surprising baritone.

“Oh,” I said, “what are you looking for?”

Lost Lands Man looked around as if to be sure that no one else was listening. “Atlantis.”


I should have known that the lost lands weren’t some respectable country that had really existed. No one in the Reading Room of the 42nd St. library was looking for anything that could be found. But:

“In confidence,” Lost Lands Man whispered, “I am close to locating it.”

“Where?” I asked.

“I don’t like to talk about it here. But I’d be happy to meet you after the library closes.”


In the old world I might have been reluctant to make a rendez-vous with a stranger who was looking for Atlantis, but this was the new world and I had nothing to lose.

It was dark when I came out of the library. Lost Lands Man was waiting on the steps, wearing a tan raincoat, his notecards stored in a sturdy-looking briefcase. He steered me to a bar on Fortieth Street, where a Japanese jazz duo was playing: saxophone and upright bass. He didn’t drink alcohol; over a Coca-Cola, he told me the story of how he came to be looking for the lost continent.

Until two years ago, Lost Lands Man was a management consultant for a firm which he thought it better not to name. He traveled all over the United States, advising hospitals on how to increase their profits. He was one of the fortunate consultants who was not, basically, a travelling executioner; his job was to identify business opportunities that his clients might have overlooked. What it came down to, he said, was coming up with services which maximized the ratio of charges to actual cost, and what that came down to was sick children. There is something irresistible about a sick child, Lost Lands Man said, something irrational, something that makes even insurance companies set aside their pocket calculators and reach for their checkbooks. Burnt children in particular are a gold mine.

So Lost Lands Man, who did not think of himself as a particularly morbid person, entered the gloomy but lucrative world of pediatric thanatology. He spent his days in hospital offices, reviewing the statistics on Dawson’s disease, cystic fibrosis, osteosarcoma, progeria, leukemia, disgerminoma. Burns, trauma, pediatric hospice care. He studied mental disorders, too: mental disorders were great because they were low-overhead. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, childhood schizophrenia and schizoid personality disorder, attention-deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity. He liked to think that he was helping the children: he was getting them wards, clinics, inpatient and outpatient services. It didn’t hurt that he made the hospitals money, or that he was doing well himself: he owned a house in Riverdale, a Mercedes CL500, a time-share on the Jersey shore.

It might have been all right except for the kids. Lost Lands Man spent as little time as he could around actual sick children, but still he found himself, weekly, sometimes daily, touring the wards, breathing in that sweet-poop smell, not being able to stop himself from looking as he passed one open door after another, and seeing them, the kids, spidery, lumpy, intubated, bandaged, docile, moaning, or to the eye just fine, sitting on their beds in their bargain-basement little gowns, playing with expensive toys provided by a private donor. The kids who weren’t really sick were just as bad: Lost Lands Man’s heart sank when he saw how they changed as they approached the hospital, how these kids who suffered at worst from an excess of what his father called pep became still as they walked up the beshrubbed pathway to the clinic, how they assumed, just there, between the car and the hospital entrance, the solemn masks of the diseased.

That was when he began to dream about his job. Night after night he found himself in the same situation: he was sitting in his office, with a dying kid across the desk from him, telling Lost Lands Man what he or she wanted from life. Always it was something at once vague and specific, something maddeningly hard to translate into practical terms. With terror Lost Lands Man anticipated the moment when the kid would ask him, —So what are my chances? And he would have to admit, —I can’t help you. The dream always ended the same way: with an earthquake. The ground shook and the ceiling cracked; Lost Lands Man crawled under his desk as chunks of plaster and insulation rained down.

He tried sleeping pills, which only made the dreams more vivid when they came. His analyst advised him that the roots of his anxiety lay lost in a childhood thicket where his father lurked; Lost Lands Man protested that what he suffered from wasn’t anxiety so much as despair. One sleepless night, he was reading Plato and came across the Atlantis story. It ended with a phrase that stuck in Lost Lands Man’s memory: the people of Atlantis, being unable to bear their fortune, became unseemly. Why, he wondered, was fortune hard to bear? Was he having trouble bearing his own fortune? There was something in Atlantis that was worth figuring out. And Atlantis, according to Plato, was destroyed by an earthquake, just like the office was in his dream! It was a sign.

Lost Lands Man read the standard works on Atlantis over his vacation, and became convinced of two things: first, that almost all of the standard works were nonsense, and, second, that Atlantis was the key to something important, the whole modern world, maybe. After that, his thinking unfolded with the surprising speed of a dream. The only way to understand Atlantis, he saw, was to find it; and the only way to find it was to look. When Lost Lands Man reached that conclusion, something in him was soothed, and the nightmares stopped. “It was so clearly outside the realm of cost-benefit analysis,” he said, “that I had to change my thinking entirely.”

Although he was now at peace with himself, Lost Lands Man’s life underwent a kind of cataclysm. His wife thought he’d lost his mind; his analyst said he was acting out. No one would listen to him except some people he’d met on the Internet. He wanted to quit the consulting firm, but his wife persuaded him to take a leave of absence instead. “She gave me a year,” Lost Lands Man said. “If I can’t find Atlantis by the end of December, I’ll go back to work. But I think I will have found it by then.”

After months of working day and night, he had ruled out many places where the lost continent might be. Donnelly’s theory of volcanic subsidence was tempting but the geology didn’t bear it out. Serranus’s assertion that Atlantis was Palestine was merely wishful thinking, the equation of one mythologically significant place with another. Rudbeck’s situation of Atlantis in present-day Sweden didn’t even bear talking about. Bailly, a euhemerist, put Atlantis on the island of Spitsbegen, in the Artic Ocean: an imaginative argument, but it depended on Buffon’s mistaken belief that the world was warmer ten thousand years ago than it is now. Buffon himself was a volcanist, therefore useless. “As for the people who look for Atlantis in North Africa,” Lost Lands Man said, “they were most likely influenced by a colonial belief that everything would be found in Africa sooner or later.” The people who said Atlantis was in the Pacific were obviously mad.

“When the false hypotheses have been eliminated,” Lost Lands Man said, “only one possibility remains. It is the hypothesis advanced by Sir Francis Bacon in The New Atlantis, and seconded by the English wizard John Dee.” He finished his Coca-Cola, and let the ice click against his teeth.

“Yes?” I said, and just then Suzanne appeared beside us, smiling benevolently. She was wearing a black belted coat and a knit sweater through which, if one were to look, the straps of a black bra might be seen. (One was trying not to look: I had had an awkward moment with Suzanne after a dinner party, months earlier, and I hadn’t seen her since.) If she was surprised to find me here, in a nondescript bar in the east Forties, talking about Atlantis, she didn’t show it.

“Hello, you two!” she said, pushing her hair back out of her eyes. “My friend’s not here. Do you mind if I sit down?”

“I was just…” I began, but Lost Lands Known to Greek Antiquity Man was already making room for her on the vinyl bench. He extended his hand to Suzanne. “My name,” he said, “is Gladstone Fallows, Junior.”

Suzanne’s eyebrows went up. “Hello, Gladstone Fallows Junior! Did I hear you talking about Atlantis?”

Gladstone nodded.

“That’s so interesting,” Suzanne said, “I was just watching a television show about Atlantis, and they said they’d found it! It was some island off of Crete, they said.”

I mouthed no, no, but too late. “Well, that’s one hypothesis,” Gladstone said. “I happen to subscribe to another, myself, but I see its appeal. By situating the island, or continent, close at hand, and diminishing its size, some scholars hope to render its existence more plausible. Now, if you would like an analogy, you might think of the works of Shakespeare. Why do so many people believe that the plays were written by the Earl of Oxford? Is it because they find it more plausible that an educated nobleman would have taken up the pen in secret than that this enormous talent would have sprung up from nowhere? The record, such as it is, supports the more improbable conjecture, but people invent facts in support of the other because it seems more likely. As if small, familiar things were more likely to exist than large, unfamiliar ones.”

“Ah hum,” said Suzanne, her eyes shining.

“And tell me,” Gladstone said, “what is it that you do?”

Sometimes in order to see something you need someone else to see it first. In the other person’s response you see an interpretation, and thus a simplification, of the thing they are responding to, which makes that thing intelligible, even if it was too hard for you to understand before: the way you might read an essay to find your way into a difficult novel, or watch the musicians’ heads bob to follow a complicated beat. So by watching Gladstone Fallows watch Suzanne I understood finally that she made her songs beautiful and not vice-versa. There was something in her which made the word seem uncracked. It was as if, to borrow a thought from Philip K. Dick, whose science fiction I have written about, or will write about, I don’t remember, elsewhere, the world were in a kind of Manichean balance, as if it had summoned up the trauma and the agent capable of healing the trauma at the same time.

This, I think, was why Suzanne never had much success as a singer. She needed to be physically present to animate the music, to make you feel its weird ability to describe a beautiful inhuman world. If you had never seen her play, a recording of her music would do nothing for you—you would mistake it for the ordinary wispy singer-songwriter stuff which glutted America’s coffeeshops starting long before 9/11, and which, like a broken clock, finally fit the country’s mood for a few months in the fall of 2001. (If you had seen her play the recording was just a reminder: methodone for the heroin addict.)

Gladstone understood this right away. He was telling her that she should do theater.

“Me?” Suzanne said, delighted. “I don’t know…”

“Absolutely,” said Gladstone, “you’re magnetic.”

Suzanne blushed.

I didn’t know whether to be grateful or jealous or chagrined that I was being outflirted by Lost Lands Known to Greek Antiquity Man.

Then suddenly, after taking Suzanne’s e-mail address, in order, he said, to send her a list of books that might change her mind about the lost continent, Gladstone excused himself. He was expected home for dinner.

“He’s funny,” Suzanne said when he was gone. “Where did you meet him?”

“In the library.”

Then silence. Who knows what lost continents I might have dredged up from the muck of my diffident spirit if Suzanne hadn’t given a sharp cry, as of alarm. “I’m buzzing!”

She took a telephone from her coat pocket and looked at its little screen. “This is my friend,” she said. “Hello? What? I’m here. I’m… what? Oh. I’m in the wrong bar,” she said to me. “Do you have my number? Well, get it from David… goodbye… and call me…”

With a flourish of sweatered shoulders and the shrug of a black coat Suzanne trailed off. The people at the bar watched her go and shook their heads; the kid bassist, on break, lowered his face to his glass. Something had passed.

I intended to call David, to get Suzanne’s number, but a number of other things happened: I ran out of money and had to leave the apartment on Fifty-Fourth Street. I slept in Norman Mailer’s car for a night, then my pride was exhausted and I went to live with Marie. That was a difficult time: my mother was still consumed with grief at the loss of her sister, we were both still consumed with grief. I drank a lot and spent as much time as I could at the movies. I decided to wait until I was back on my feet to call Suzanne, then I heard from David Rice that Suzanne had moved back to Canada. She missed her family, David said.

Time passed. Things happened. One Saturday in late August, 2002, I was reading through what I’d written, looking for the place where the missing thing went, when Gladstone Fallows Junior approached me in a state of what, in him, must pass for high excitement: his eyelid was twitching. “I’m sorry to bother you, but what are you doing tomorrow?”

“Nothing much,” I said.

“I wonder if you would like to take a trip with me?”

“Where to?”

“New Jersey,” Gladstone whispered.

“Is that where…?”

“Sh!” Gladstone said. “Say nothing to anyone, and don’t bring anything you don’t want to get dirty.”

Sunday morning was warm and drizzly; the air smelled of earth and vapor rose up from the ground and shone yellow as it approached the zenith. At a quarter past nine Gladstone picked me up in a yellow Toyota that looked too small for him, let alone for both of us. I climbed in and instead of heading towards the Lincoln Tunnel he steered us east and south to pick up another passenger. “I have to caution you not to get your hopes up,” he said. “We are only following a conjecture and very likely what we’ll find is nothing at all.” But before we’d gone a block he was explaining to me how he’d reached his present, astounding conclusion.

For years he had known that Atlantis must be America. “A continent to the west of the Pillars of Hercules, where else could it be? Certainly, you can posit an island that sank into the mid-Atlantic, but where is the evidence? Where is the coastal flooding? Where is the mound on the ocean floor? Where, please, is the mechanism by which an entire continent may be caused to sink?” As for the possibility that Atlantis was in the Mediterranean, Gladstone had scoffed at it once in my presence, and he thought it unnecessary to scoff again. “All the records say west,” he said. “I think we should give the ancients credit for knowing what direction west is.”

We passed before the Empire State Building, its top hidden in the fog. “Besides,” Gladstone was saying, “the Aztecs have a story of having come from a place called Aztlán, a fair and beautiful land with a crooked mountain, Culhuacan, which, by the way, corresponds fairly well to the mountain Plato describes in the Timaeus, if you allow notched or grooved to mean the same as crooked. When you take into account the fact that atl in the Aztec tongue means water…” We turned onto Park Avenue South and the tall buildings swallowed some of the light. The street was deserted, and with the mist overhead and the yellow light, it seemed almost prehistoric, a city that belonged to a younger, warmer Earth.

“Legend situates Aztlán to the northwest of present-day Mexico,” Gladstone said. “Now we have to do some reasoning. The Aztecs could not have crossed the ocean from Europe, because Plato says clearly that Atlantis was separated from Europe by water.” Traffic was light, but Gladstone slowed down as we approached Union Square. “Now, we’ve already agreed that there is no literal lost continent in the Atlantic ocean, and so, if Aztlán isn’t in Europe, it must be in North America. And that means… ah, here she is.”

A hand tapped on the glass of the passenger window, and Suzanne could be heard saying, “Come on, let me in! It’s raining.”

She wore a sweatshirt and sneakers, tugged at her wet hair, was impossible, an apparition, like one of the characters who dies in the course of In Search of Lost Time but shows up anyway at a party in the last volume because Proust himself was dying, and never had a chance to go back and edit her out. I climbed out of the car and she got in and I got in after her.

“You were supposed to call me!” she said.

“I know,” I said, “but things happened!” I contorted myself in my seat and turned to face Suzanne. “I had to move out of my apartment…”

“Ahem,” said Gladstone Fallows Junior. “If you’ll let me finish?”

We crossed over into New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel. Gladstone told us he was able to discount the mounds of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, on the grounds that they are too recent. The West Coast, the Midwest and in general everything west of the Appalachians was ruled out: the Atlantides were seafarers, and they must have crossed the Atlantic, else Plato would never have heard of them. The “Sacrificial Stone” in Salem, New Hampshire, attracted Gladstone’s attention briefly, but on the basis of its markings he concluded that it had been left there by a later civilization, probably the Phoenicians.

For a long time Gladstone was perplexed. Atlantis was a great civilization; it seemed virtually impossible that no trace of their civilization would have been dug up on the densely settled eastern seaboard of the United States. No iron fittings, no potshards, no foundation stones? No trace of the canals that once irrigated Atlantis’s central plain? Long research revealed nothing, or at least, not much. Then it occurred to Gladstone that the lack of findings was significant: if no one had dug up Atlantidean ruins, it could only mean that the ruins were to be found in a place where no one had yet dug.

We came out of the tunnel and joined the cars headed to Newark Airport, the trucks that fed the factories and power plants, the people on their way to shop at Ikea, all of them unaware that the ruins of mightiest empire in history were no more than an hour south of them. Because it had to be here, in New Jersey, more precisely, in the Pine Barrens, a great big blank spot on the state’s southern coast, a land of sandy soil unfit for agriculture, where no one had settled, a land of unexcavated shifting sands.

“And why is the soil sandy, do you know? Because in the Miocene Era, the level of the Atlantic Ocean rose and fell hundreds of feet. The barrens were all underwater! Are you beginning to understand?” Suzanne and I looked at each other. Oh, she was beautiful. “The Miocene Era ended five million years ago, but during the Pleistocene, which, as you know, was the era of the glaciers, the ocean rose and fell again,” Gladstone said. “Now I ask you: is it not possible that the Atlantides built their great city on a coastal plain, at the end of an Ice Age, some ten thousand years ago? And when the earth warmed again, and the glaciers melted, is it not possible that the ocean rose to swallow their city?”

“You mean, they died of global warming?”

“That’s one way of putting it,” said Gladstone Fallows Junior.

At Lakehurst we left the parkway, and meandered west and south along a series of roads flanked by fenced-off estates and trailer parks, shopping centers, enormous gas stations, which with their lofty canopies looked ready to serve a new race of giant automobiles. “The funny thing is,” Gladstone said, “my parents used to have a house not far from here. They were in Waretown, near the water. My father took me hiking in the barrens. Imagine how I would have felt, if I’d known I was walking on the ruins of Atlantis!”

“Amazing,” Suzanne said.

Gladstone explained how he had spent the last few months looking at old maps of the Pine Barrens, studying tide charts, identifying the most likely place to begin the search. “Even so,” he said, “it’s unlikely that we will find anything today, you understand.”

I don’t remember when I saw the first pine tree, but soon they were everywhere, low, two-story trees, their branches twisted like arthritic fingers, bristling with green growth. The ground beneath them was white sand and green scrub. There were no houses, only long white roads that led into the woods. Gladstone turned down one of these and we listened to the hissing of the tires on the sand. I don’t know how many miles we’d gone when he stopped the car in a clearing beneath a flat white sky. The air was cool and smelled of pine needles and faintly of the ocean, although we were well inland.

Suzanne got out of the car and stretched. Her shirt lifted up and her unskinny white belly appeared for just a second.

“David said you were in Canada,” I said.

“I am back!” Suzanne said. “There were some more things I wanted to do…”

Before she could go on, Gladstone was handing us things: yellow rain hats, short-handled shovels, disposable cameras, a tin colander, flashlights, sandwiches. “Obviously, it would be impractical to dig everywhere,” he said. “Look for swellings in the ground, or, alternately, for sunken places. Dig gently. If you hit something hard, stop and use your hands. If you find something, shout, and don’t move. I’ll come mark it on the map.” He gestured at the trees that grew in unbroken, undifferentiated rows, all around us. “We’ll regroup for lunch at one o’clock.”

We dispersed; I can’t say which way I went. The barrens were broken by a network of tracks, some scored by the tires of off-road vehicles, some narrow and footprintless. I walked away from the car on one of these, and it very quickly became clear that I was not going to find anything: the ground was uneven everywhere, and the trees grew so close together that it would be almost impossible to dig without striking a root. Soon I found myself thinking about Suzanne. I hoped our paths would cross in the forest, but I didn’t see or hear anyone, and after a while I began to wonder if I had got lost. A long time passed, then I heard Gladstone shout, “Hey! Hey!” from far off.

I ran towards his voice, tripped on a root, fell, got up, ran, and found him at last in a clearing, on his hands and knees. I thought he must have had some kind of attack: perhaps his brain had given up the Atlantis dream at last. Suzanne arrived breathless a moment later.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Look,” Gladstone said.

He showed us a red oblong resting in his palm. It was a piece of terra-cotta, smooth-edged, broken, off, doubtless, from something, and long buried in the acid soil. “It was on the surface,” he said. “All along, it’s been here!” I knelt beside him to get a better look. The bit of pottery did in fact look very old, ancient, even. White lichen mottled its sides.

“What is it?” Suzanne asked. “A pot?”

“More like a brick,” Gladstone said. “It’s too thick for pottery. And we know that the Atlantides built with brick.”

“Wow,” Suzanne said. “A brick from Atlantis. Can I hold it?”

“Gently,” said Gladstone.

Suzanne took it from his hand. “You’re probably the last person who will ever touch it,” Gladstone said. “We’ll have to seal it up, so the chemicals from our hands don’t destroy the patina.”

Suzanne turned the red oblong over. “Hey,” she said, “what’s this?” “What’s what?” Gladstone stood beside her, and I crowded in, too, and before Gladstone took the shard of brick and threw it on the ground I knelt to read the word stamped in block capitals on its reverse: PASADENA. A mystery of sorts, albeit not the one we had come all this way to discover.

Gladstone was silent on the way back to the city. “Don’t be too disappointed,” Suzanne said. “You said yourself, we probably wouldn’t find anything today.”

“Maybe we tried to cover too much ground,” I said. “We could go back another time and search just a small area.”

Gladstone bit the ends of his moustache. When we emerged from the Holland Tunnel, he asked, “What am I going to tell my wife?”

“Tell her that no one could find Atlantis in a year,” I suggested.

“Don’t think about it now,” Suzanne said. “Let’s have lunch.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said.

“I’ll drop you off,” Gladstone said. “I don’t feel hungry myself.”

We got out of the car on the corner of Bowery and Grand.

“You have to go again,” Suzanne said. “What is it they say, get back on the horse?”

“They do say that,” Gladstone said, “but it’s almost September…”

That was the last time I saw Gladstone Fallows, Junior, but not the last time I saw Suzanne.

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