The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
When I heard, a few months ago, that Paul La Farge's new novel would be about H.P. Lovecraft, I groaned. For one thing, I don't care about Lovecraft (no, more than that: I actively dislike Lovecraft's writing, life, everything); for another, there's a boom in people writing about Lovecraft these days. Good writers, too! Not just the hacks of fandom churning out their unintentionally almost-funny imitations, not just cretins of the sort who bought Weird Tales because they would rather run it into the ground than have anybody taint its legacy with stories that aren't imitations of Lovecraft — no, I'm talking about good writers, interesting writers, original writers, and—
Ugh, I just don't get it. And then comes the announcement about Paul La Farge, a writer I've enjoyed for almost twenty years now, ever since a friend of mine spent some time at the MacDowell Colony when he was there and told me, "There's a guy here who writes weird surrealist stuff you'd like," and when I went to visit her we stopped by the Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough and I picked up a copy of The Artist of the Missing, read it, liked it (a bit too closely imitative of Kafka/Calvino/Borges, but well done), then later bought his next novel, Haussmann, or, The Distinction, which felt really original to me at the time, almost vertiginously so, as I hardly knew how to get my bearings with it, mostly because it was about histories I knew nothing about, but it haunted me. And then The Facts of Winter, a beautiful book of shimmering weird dreamstuff, lovely and yet also insubstantial. (I missed Luminous Airplanes somehow.) There were also various fun essays and interesting short stories that I caught here or there.
Thus, for some time now, La Farge's name has been one of the few that will induce me to pick up a book or magazine on the strength of his byline alone. His writing and his perspective are singular.
But ... Lovecraft? What was going on? Was he tired of suffering the obscurity of the highly literate, esoteric writer, and now wanted to jump on the apparent gravy train of Lovecraftianity? Everybody's got to eat, so good for him, but what was I to do, I who wanted to read Paul La Farge's new novel but...? And it has such a great Lynd Ward-ish cover... And...
And then, out of the blue, a publicist from Penguin Press asked me if I wanted a copy. What could I say? It wouldn't cost me anything. I could take a look at the first 25 pages or so and if it was too Lovecrafty, I could just pass the book on to one of the many people I know who (inexplicably!) are fascinated by old HPL and find enjoyment in reading his fiction. Sure, I said. Send it along.
The book arrived and the physical object itself was very nice. The cover is even better on the book than in pictures. The interior design is pleasant. I flipped through the novel a bit, not really having time to read it, hoping to be put off by a bunch of C'fyungpwyeevgghhhhhh and Shollllblagghhhwrryudddppt-Tupthe'yop and eldritch prose so I could then without any feeling of guilt put the book away and move on to work I really needed to do.
Instead of being put off, though, I soon discovered I had read the first few chapters and my other work could wait.
I have many words of praise of the other La Farge books I've read, but gripping is not one that first comes to mind. It's an accurate word, though, for most of The Night Ocean. (There were ten or twenty pages I thought could have used a bit of trimming. [I think that about most novels.] In some ways, that testifies to the grip the book had for me: I wanted it to stop piddling around in details and get moving again. This is a danger for reality effects hitching a ride from vehicles of suspense.) I don't think of the grip as a high value for a book, since plenty of pedestrian, forgettable novels are gripping and many (most?) of the best reading experiences of my life have been with books I sometimes had to drag myself through, but I also think The Night Ocean is a significant advance over the other La Farge books I've read; it feels richer, more deeply satisfying in the ways that its implications and ideas ripple through the imagination.
Partly, that sense of richness results from my knowing some of the background history in a way I did not for Haussmann. An important section of The Night Ocean involves the Futurians, an early group of science fiction fans that included such people as Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim, and Isaac Asimov. When I was a kid, I read a bunch of Asimov's autobiographical books (Before the Golden Age, The Early Asimov, and his actual autobiographies) and so developed a strong sense of the early years of science fiction fandom; later, I became interested in Weird Tales and read a bunch about it, as well. Neither interest really stuck with me, but my brain doesn't seem to want to lose the trivia it vacuumed up between the ages of about 12 and 15. Having various friends who are interested in Lovecraft, I've also been subjected to plenty of discussion of his works and life, too.
Having such knowledge — and, especially, having it be the kind of fragmented, hazy knowledge leftover from childhood obsessions — makes for some joyfully discombobulating reading of this book. As much as he has structured the novel to be reminiscent of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, I more often though not of Lovecraft but of Guy Davenport. The writing is not of Davenport's level (which is no slam against La Farge, because pretty much no contemporary writing is of Davenport's level), but the deep knowledge of a particular milieu mixed with careful fictionalizing is. I was constantly thinking, "I know this part is based on actual people and actual history, but what about this other part...?"
La Farge induces this effect and then centers it as, in fact, the engine of his novel's ideas. How, the book asks, do our desires for stories affect what we believe about reality? All of us must at some point or another face the mysteries of existence and not only accept what is unknowable but also settle on what we're willing to believe. It's a key not only to celebrity culture and fandoms of all sorts, but also, in some way, to everday interactions with other human beings. We amass knowledge, which is always partial, then mix it with assumptions, and thus we "know" someone. Our idea of personality as consistent is based on the push and pull between what we know (or think we know) and what we speculate. The idea of a fictional character being consistent is similar. "I didn't find the character believable," is a criticism of fiction that says at least as much about the person offering the criticism as it does about the character. Reality effects, all the way down.
The Night Ocean plays with all this, then also asks: What do we want to know about people, and what don't we want to know? What do we want to believe, and why? H.P. Lovecraft was a real person (or, rather a person named Howard Lovecraft existed; the author-function that is the byline H.P. Lovecraft is something much bigger, and more alive than ever), and Robert Barlow was a real person who really knew Howard Lovecraft, and really invited Lovecraft to Florida, and the real Lovecraft really went to visit the real Barlow in what was then a real Florida (was Florida ever real?). Also, Barlow was at times actively homosexual. Those are facts, and not a whole lot else is known about them.
What do you want to believe about those facts? What would you be willing to believe, even if you didn't really want to? And what would make you say, "Pshaw! Surely, my good man, you are pulling my leg!"
And what does it matter what you believe about people you'll never know?
Fandom is an especially fertile lens through which to view such questions, because fandom is premised on shared passion, and that shared passion creates tribal affinities and emotional attachments that obliterate rational thought. (If you want to analyze digging-in-your-heels, against-all-evidence self-justification, look at fan behavior.) We can see the real-world consequences of fandom when we turn to politics. Much of the vomitorious 2016 U.S. election was a clash of fandoms: Bernie fans versus Hillary fans versus Donnie fans. The U.S. is so besotted with celebrity culture that we've handed our fate over to perceptions of politics that are the intellectual equivalent of liking or disliking a Kardashian. Fascism doesn't need the leader principle anymore; it thrives much better in the politics of style and image. (Don't the Obamas look great now that they're able to spend their time jetskiing with billionaires, by the way? I didn't entirely approve of Barack's sunglasses, but Michelle's dress was just fabulous! So wish we could go back to them being the ones in the White House, since their extrajudicial killings and mass deportations were sooo much more appealing than the current guy's.) But I digress...
The Night Ocean raises these questions, but it does much more than that — it enacts them both within the narrative and within the reader's own experience of the narrative. We are forced to face what we want to believe about the characters and their stories, and we are encouraged to think about why.
Coincidences pile up, and they contribute to the book's adventures in epistemology and metaphysics, because a lot of the coincidences are, in fact, documented. (For instance, William S. Burroughs really was Robert Barlow's student when Barlow was a professor of anthropology in Mexico City.) What sort of meaning do we give to the weird coincidences of life? Should I make anything of the fact that just before I started reading The Night Ocean, I'd been reading about one of its minor characters, Samuel Roth, in whose papers were recently found the manuscript of an unpublished Claude McKay novel, Amiable with Big Teeth, released by Penguin Classics last month? Should I read anything into the passing mention of the now more-or-less forgotten writer Christopher La Farge, whose verse novel Each to the Other my mother read in high school and recommended to me when I was in high school, and which I think I read but don't remember in the least, yet the dustjacket and pages of the book remain remarkably vivid for me now, decades later? Should I find meaning in the fact that I finished reading The Night Ocean on the 80th anniversary of Lovecraft's death, and because of a snow storm knocking out my internet, I didn't discover this until I was reading the last pages, when, the internet having returned, I glanced at Twitter and Facebook and various people were wishing HPL happy deathday? Should I care that my father and Lovecraft shared a birthday?
Coincidences are fun stories to tell. What those stories add up to, and what sort of work they do in the world, and the ways that finding meaning in coincidences leads to theorizing about conspiracies, and the ways that conspiracy theories sometimes create conspiratorial realities ... well, those are ideas worth investigating...
One of the elements of The Night Ocean that I love is that our guide through it all is a (post)Freudian psychoanalyst, Marina Willett (whose husband has disappeared after searching for the truth about Lovecraft and Barlow). Purely on the level of craft, Marina is a useful narrator for La Farge because she doesn't know anything about Lovecraft and so can serve as a guide to the perplexed. She also seems pretty rational and even-keeled, which is helpful for a certain type of story. (Charles Baxter insightfully discusses such narrators in the essay "Digging the Subterranean" in The Art of Subtext.) But more than that, she is obsessed in her own way with finding the truth beneath stories, while also, as a psychoanalyst, knowing that as often as not it is fantasies that structure our worlds. (It would be interesting to read this novel alongside Coetzee & Kurtz's The Good Story.) I wish that La Farge had found ways to play up this angle a little bit more, as Marina felt to me only superficially a psychoanalyst, but that may just be the fault of my own assumptions about how psychoanalysts think and tell their stories.
The Night Ocean is full of stories within stories — or, perhaps more accurately, it's full of stories about other stories. This isn't metafictional game-playing of the sort postmodern novels got criticized for (justly or unjustly) decades ago, but rather an acknowledgment that life is stories, the stories we tell of ourselves and others, the stories we believe and the stories we reject. History, as plenty of people have pointed out, is not a collection of facts, but rather a story told about a collection of facts. So, too, here. La Farge uses the richness of the material he's gathered to explore the intersections of stories real and imagined.
And to explore horror stories in particular. The Night Ocean itself is not a horror novel in the genre sense, but it is very much a novel about how horror stories real and imagined affect the lives of both storytellers and audiences. In a world of unfathomable cruelty and misery, what is horrifying? More importantly, in a world of unfathomable cruelty and misery, how does horror become a spectacle, and how does our response to that spectacle support our sense of ourselves as good human beings?