ELADATL by Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo

[City Lights; 2021]

These days, dirigible sightings are largely limited to blimps advertising tires and satellite dishes above sporting events. At the turn of the twentieth century, however, many people believed that these lighter-than-air vessels heralded a new world of human and technological potential. In 1910, such a vision motivated an early attempt at trans-Atlantic flight by the airship America, which flew from Atlantic City to Nova Scotia before its engines failed and it was blown off course, forcing its crew, as well as a stowaway cat, to abandon ship near the Bermuda Triangle, where America floated on, never to be heard from again.

In a 1912 Popular Mechanics article, “The Fallacy of the Dirigible,” Victor Lougheed cited America’s “balloonacy” as evidence of the supremacy of heavier-than-air flying machines like the aeroplane. Of course, Lougheed, who later inspired his younger brother Allan to found the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, would win the day, the airplane industry eventually taking off to play an integral role in carpet bombing, union busting, housing segregation, pollution, and mad dashes to the airport for the one you love. Nevertheless, before drifting off — perhaps to be abducted by government-confirmed aliens, repurposed by island scavengers, or assimilated into a nascent garbage gyre in the Atlantic — the airship America had already completed the longest flight, in both time and distance, on record. Perhaps more importantly, it had also completed what may have been the first air-to-ground radio message: “Come and get this goddam cat!”

Such balloonacy could be said to shape Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romero’s ELADATL. Exploring, through various perspectives and artifacts, the fictional East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transportation Lines, the novel drifts between characters, settings, and modes. One ELADATL member, identifiable not by stable traits but by a growing set of injuries, races to build dirigibles out of found materials in abandoned factories before the buildings are demolished for the next development. Somewhere else in time and space, a pair flies in search of Sky City, an uncharted agglomeration of swirling debris, swept up into the atmosphere by strange weather events that have decimated the land below. Others, including the FBI and CIA, are hanging around somewhere too.

The ELADATL organization has revolutionary plans, but it is hard to tell whether those plans are coming together or falling apart, whether the dirigibles are a thing of the past or the future, whether they have not yet arrived because they are always late or because they do not exist. The uninsured airships could be part of an actual transit system or merely props in a movie about a man who will do whatever it takes to save the woman he loves. Among these clouds of mystery, there are also real places and histories, like that of Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license, and William J. Powell, who founded the Los Angeles Bessie Coleman Aero Club to encourage African Americans to enter the nascent aviation industry before it became as segregated as others. Artist Noah Purifoy’s open-air sculpture museum in Joshua Tree also makes an appearance, as two characters search for missing dirigibles among Purifoy’s desert assemblages, a form he dedicated himself to after sifting through the rubble of the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

This mix of fact and fiction is disorienting but fitting for a book set in a place full of so many real people and memories but also a place being constantly written and rewritten, a utopia one day, a dystopia the next. Popular stories and histories often privilege familiar perspectives and forms, and ELADATL plays with these tropes before abandoning them when they become predictable or cumbersome. In the opening chapter, the book resists early classification while a dialogue between two characters, feeling each other out while flying high above the city, switches fluently from romance to Western to crime to noir to dystopia, both the characters and the city below refracted by the various genres, before culminating in a Mission Impossible-style action sequence involving a paraglider.

Such playful resistance is in stark contrast to another recent work of fiction about aviation, Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast turned audiobook turned best-selling hardcover transcript, The Bomber Mafia, which in its attempt to reduce complex histories to a polished, unified story, instead creates a myth in which millions of Japanese civilians die on the ground while two feuding American gods engage in a lofty battle of ideas in the sky. While Gladwell makes his usual effort to sand down any bit of history that might complicate his little big idea, Foster and Romero allow their assemblage its gaps and overlaps. By leaving space for such irregularities, the authors also leave space for the readers, as both its passengers and co-conspirators.

An archive of stories, reports, interviews, memos, lunch menus, and more, ELADATL’s pages could just as easily be found in a dusty old box as between book covers. Indeed, rather than forcing the reader to proceed along a linear path, the book’s authors instead encourage us to rifle, to look for and make interesting connections between its disparate documents. Experimentation like this can sometimes lead to cold, hollow results, but ELADATL also contains a heart, as well as beautiful passages befitting a scenic balloon ride through a shared dream. A trip through a place you care about is never a direct route along a registered path. Every corner of a familiar place spurs a memory, and rather than turn away from such diversions, ELADATL follows them, down side streets and alleys, through yards and empty lots, until it pops out, suddenly, not necessarily where it intended but possibly where it is needed.

Eric Jett is an editor at Full Stop and a co-host of the podcast Mr. Difficult.

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