Thursday, March 9, 2017

Obscure and Beautiful Facts: Paul La Farge's The Night Ocean

Paul La Farge. (Photo: Carol Shadford)

“The only real horror in most of these fictions,” Edmund Wilson wrote in The New Yorker in 1945, assessing the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft, “is the horror of bad taste and bad art. Lovecraft was not a good writer. The fact that his verbose and undistinguished style has been compared to Poe’s is only one of the many sad signs that almost nobody any more pays any real attention to writing. . . . The Lovecraft cult, I fear, is on even a more infantile level than the Baker Street Irregulars.” Like Wilson, I’ve given Lovecraft’s work an ample tryout; several over the years, in fact, always in the hope that this time something will click into place, that his vaunted visionary genius will make itself known to me. Unlike Wilson, I’m actually a fan of horror and supernatural literature, and so more than averagely credulous in these things. Yet for all the dread I’d love to feel from Lovecraft’s interminable tales of New England backwaters beset with ancient curses, extraterrestrial miasmas, and subterranean succubi, I too find him turgid, absurd, and not the least bit unnerving.

I say all this not to slaughter a sacred cow, but to make it clear that an enjoyment of Paul La Farge’s new novel, The Night Ocean (Penguin, 389 pp.), does not depend on being an admirer of Lovecraft’s writing, let alone a member of his cult. Though Lovecraft is the novel’s gravitational center, it’s more the man than the writer who is on display  or who is refracted, rather, through the reverence, resentment, or obsessive curiosity of other characters. The narrator is Marina, a modern-day New York therapist. She’s married to Charlie, a journalist whose specialty is lovingly detailed stories about unknown but singular people. Dogged yet oddly fragile, gifted at “immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts,” Charlie is uniquely susceptible to the mystery that triggers the novel’s action.

In the early 1930s, H.P. Lovecraft answered a fan letter from one Robert H. Barlow, a Florida teenager and connoisseur of weird fiction. The correspondence led to Lovecraft staying with Barlow’s family in the summer of 1934, and again the following summer; the two met in New York in the interim, and in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1936. They collaborated on a handful of short works – including the story which gives La Farge’s novel its title – but for Lovecraftians, the mystery has always been the precise nature of the no doubt deep communion between the cadaverous, forty-something New Englander and the skinny, nearsighted boy genius. Was it merely a commingling of like minds and morbid imaginations, or was it also a love affair? If the latter, was it Platonic or physical?

Lovecraft died of intestinal cancer in 1937 at the age of 46. Barlow, prodigal in several fields, first moved to Kansas City to study art, and then to Berkeley to study anthropology (under Alfred Kroeber, father of science fiction giant Ursula K. Le Guin). Lovecraft had named Barlow his literary executor; after trying to get some of his late mentor’s unpublished work printed, Barlow, then unknown in the subculture of weird-fiction fandom, became a target of rancorous attack from that quarter. Perhaps partly as a result, he left America, taking a teaching position at a Mexico City college. He published voluminously on Aztec history, and in 1951 ended his life, leaving a note that read: “Do not disturb me, I wish to sleep a long time.” It was rumored that Barlow had lately been threatened with exposure of his homosexuality.

These events alone would seem to provide ample material for a novel, but they’re merely the jumping-off point. Refracting fiction against fact and vice versa, La Farge constructs a hall of mirrors around the narrative. Aside from Lovecraft and Barlow, the real people brought in as imaginative actors include TV journalist Edward R. Murrow, ‘zine pioneer Forrest Ackerman, and Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi. During Barlow’s Mexican sojourn, a seedy young man in a suit turns up – a part-time student, user and dealer, gay cruiser. His name is Bill, and it becomes clear before long that he is William Burroughs – who actually studied under Barlow in 1950. Later, in New York, a man named Lee appears, talking to a different character in a different time: like a bad penny, Burroughs has turned up again, though by now he is “William Lee,” imminently the author of Junkie (1953), the pulp story of a heroin addict. (Burroughs’s sequel, Queer, written at the same time but unpublished until 1985, was surely an important resource for La Farge, since it’s partly based on the author's life in Mexico City.) Another rich side-stream is given to the Futurian Literary Society, a gang of writers, editors, fans, and leftist agitators who caused a legendary ruckus at the First World Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1937. Here particularly, The Night Ocean recalls – and even makes an East Coast bookend to – Jake Arnott’s The House of Rumour (2012), which revolved partly around the Mañana Literary Society, a Los Angeles-based salon of sci-fi writers including Robert Heinlein, Anthony Boucher, L. Ron Hubbard, and others.

La Farge is not necessarily after a resolution to the Lovecraft-Barlow perplex (basically, did they or didn’t they?), though he fabricates fairly graphic sexual details in the form of excerpts from “the Erotonomicon,” supposedly Lovecraft’s cryptic diary of his Florida debauches with and without Barlow. (The book never existed, but its title apes that of the Necronomicon, a likewise nonexistent book of cultic evils referenced in numerous Lovecraft works.) Rather than sex, La Farge’s quarry and theme is story itself, the clashing needs – upon which both ancient and modern societies have been based  – for irresolvable mystery on the one hand, and comprehensible narrative on the other. Each of the novel’s puzzles, charades, and unveilings tracks back to some story left unfinished, some story that swallows a character and may or may not carry him back to the shore of reality. Mention is made of the phenomenon, partly documented, mostly fantasied, of “pseudocide”: writers falsifying their deaths to escape the fame they’ve created. Such a theory – that Robert Barlow faked his own demise, purchasing a Mexican death certificate and coroner’s report – enables the later appearance of a character claiming to be the still-living Barlow, and thus does a Lovecraft associate (Sam Loveman, also a real-life figure) reference the mysterious disappearance of another writer friend, Ambrose Bierce, in Mexico in 1913: “I still dream of going to look for him.” At the novel’s beginning, Charlie is assumed dead, having disappeared after escaping from a mental hospital; searching for him, Marina tracks down the man who has claimed to be Barlow – and instead of any final resolution, finds still more stories within stories.

From left: Lovecraft, Robert H. Barlow, Barlow’s mother, older brother.
With terrific yet unprepossessing skill, La Farge integrates an enormous amount of documentary fact with an even greater amount of imaginative rigor. Marina and Charlie never feel like ciphers, nor does their drama devolve into simply an excuse for the author to rehearse a clutch of cool-sounding mysteries. The novel’s style, not arresting in itself, is notable mostly for putting the lie to the old writing-workshop cliché which insists that a writer must always show, never tell. Like any number of good modern novels (Philip Roth’s American trilogy comes to mind), The Night Ocean is almost all telling. Characters narrate page after page of memory; whole patches of exposition are handled in a few deft, no-nonsense lines, or in long fact-gathering paragraphs that read like investigative journalism: fast, flat, engrossing. The dreary workshop novel would show Marina sitting at her desk, making phone calls, sending emails, agonizing over every keystroke as she frets about what she will or will not discover. But no: Marina simply tells you that she made the call or sent the email, and then what she found out. When she encounters a historical figure or event that requires a bit of landscape, she appends a contextual footnote. No fuss, no metafictional gimmickry, the story keeps moving – and with each phase of discovery, we take our own willing steps deeper into the night ocean.

La Farge was smart to make Marina the narrator: not a Lovecraft fan, or even much of a dreamer, she brings the skeptical, sometimes flippant counterpoint of the outsider, and offsets somewhat the novel’s fanboyish weave of fantasy and precocity. Other than observing, from a devoted but increasingly exasperated remove, the spiral of Charlie’s obsession, Marina is for most of the novel not a determinant, only a recorder of sights seen and stories heard. That changes in the home stretch, when her search for Charlie brings her face to face with “a biographical vampire, a person who stole other people’s lives because he had no life of his own.” It is the perfect culmination for a story about stories, a fantasy about facts: Marina, the novel’s centering consciousness, the outsider and skeptic, joins her loved one and all the others in an underworld where people recede and disappear, swallowed by the stories they have read, told, stolen, believed. Hence “the night ocean,” as both a primal image and a real place – the place, in fact, where the novel ends: dark waves and cold beach, dim figure gesturing from a distance that may be real or may be the other side of death. You are left uncertain which it is, and stories can be dangerous that way; as Charlie says to Marina, “Once you get deep enough into a story, you start seeing things.”

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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