Paul La Farge, whose well-regarded novels played audaciously with history and narrative technique as they explored how the past can affect the present, died on Jan. 18 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He was 52.
His wife, Sarah Stern, said the cause was cancer.
Mr. La Farge’s novels and short stories defied easy categorization, but they were all characterized by a sort of writer's derring-do.
“With each novel he would set out, and then it would become clear to him that he had set what seemed like an impossible formal challenge for himself,” Ms. Stern, the artistic director of the Vineyard Theater in Manhattan, said by email, “but he would keep on, wrestling forward and sideways and backwards, and eventually the story and its form would be inextricable in a way that was awe-inspiring and yet felt inevitable.”
“A reader opening one of his books is gently lowered into a bath of perfect temperature, as ideas, revelations, universes float by,” Mr. Shteyngart said by email. “But he was by no means a cold novelist of ideas. His books are inhabited by some of the most real and conflicted and lost people to have walked through 21st-century prose.”
Mr. La Farge’s debut novel, “The Artist of the Missing” (1999), tells the story of a man named Frank whose parents disappeared from his life when he was a child. While searching to fill in the gaps in his life, he meets a police photographer, Prudence, who has taken pictures of countless corpses.
“Missing the noun, as in people who have disappeared, and missing the verb, as in feeling the absence of someone, become the leitmotifs of Frank’s life and the novel alike,” Michael Frank wrote in a review in The Los Angeles Times. “When Frank roams the city in search of Prudence — who has gone missing — he learns that there is a whole world of people who have lost people.”
Mr. La Farge began “Haussmann: Or the Distinction” (2001) by presenting it as a translation of an unearthed French text from 1922. The novel goes on to tell a made-up tale about the real-life French official Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who oversaw the redesign of Paris in the 1800s.
“The Facts of Winter” (2005) was another exercise in fiction-as-reality. Mr. La Farge presented it as his translation of a minor French poet, Paul Poissel, whom he had invented out of whole cloth.
“An amnesiac’s dream,” Peter L’Official wrote in The Village Voice, “‘Facts’ is — to hear La Farge describe it — a ‘series of dreams, all dreamed by people in and around Paris during the winter of 1881, which is to say that it is a fictional account of the imaginary lives of people who may or may not be real.’”
“Luminous Airplanes” (2011), about a San Francisco programmer who returns to upstate New York to sort through his dead grandfather’s possessions, is perhaps the most realistic of Mr. La Farge’s novels, but it had its own unexpected element: Readers were invited to go to a website where Mr. La Farge posted elaborations on and continuations of the story.
His most recent novel, “The Night Ocean” (2017), again takes a real historical figure — the writer H.P. Lovecraft — and weaves a story around him.
“‘The Night Ocean’ emerges as an inexhaustible shaggy monster,” D.T. Max wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “part literary parody, part case study of the slipperiness of narrative and the seduction of a good story.”
A La Farge novel could be packed with history, and, Mr. La Farge told the literary magazine TriQuarterly in 2017, that meant research. For “Haussmann,” after spinning the story, “I went back to check all the little things,” he said. “Were the street lamps in Paris in the 1850s gas lamps or oil lamps? It was surprisingly hard to find out.”
Paul Bayard La Farge (some family members render the last name without the space) was born on Nov. 17, 1970, in Manhattan. His father, Thomas, was a writer and English teacher, and his mother, Dr. Lucy Bergson LaFarge, is editor of The Psychoanalytic Quarterly.
“I was this insufferable child who would write long mystery and fantasy stories and make my parents type them up,” he recalled in a 2017 interview with the journal aspeers. “I would read them to people, and everybody was like: ‘Oh, my God, just shut up with those stories! No one wants to hear your mystery story. It isn’t even a mystery, and we don’t get it.’ But I was really into it.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale in 1992 and did some postgraduate work at Stanford University, but left to focus on writing. As well as writing novels, he contributed to Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker and other periodicals. For one particularly well-known article, for the magazine The Believer in 2006, he traveled to Wisconsin to play Dungeons & Dragons with Gary Gygax, a creator of the game.
Mr. La Farge and Ms. Stern married in 2009. In addition to her, he is survived by his mother; his stepfather, Dr. Richard Zimmer; and his stepmother, Wendy Walker.
Mr. La Farge taught at Bennington College, Bard College and other institutions, including Columbia University, where the writer Rivka Galchen took several of his courses.
“He was the most influential teacher I had,” she said by email. “He had a way of seeing affinities the rest of us missed.”
“As his students,” she added, “we pretty universally thought of him as maximally intelligent, maximally gentle, and also funny.”