Obscuring the past to get at truth in Paul La Farge's The Night Ocean
In the Autobiography of Howard Hughes, the eccentric tycoon relates the time he visited Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, and Hemingway wanted to play fish. "One of us would have to be a marlin," he writes. "One of us would have to be a fish. And we would have to fight."
Not many people know the story because it's not true. Howard Hughes never went to see Hemingway, nor did he write the Autobiography. It was authored by a journalist named Clifford Irving, and he went to jail for it. Not for writing it, exactly, but for forging a fake passport and sending his wife in a disguise to Zurich to deposit McGraw-Hill's $750,000 advance under the Hughes family name.
Irving aside, most hoaxes are cheap tricks. But in the hands of an artist, and the context of a novel, the structure and logic of a hoax—truth and fantasy blurred together—can achieve something powerful. In Paul La Farge's new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, March 2017), fiction is used to illuminate questions about history that can't definitively be answered. Exploring this absence of knowledge, La Farge makes the book trace an outline of what's missing. The ultimate effect is a complicated and beautiful demonstration of people trying to live and love in a world of unknowns.
At the center of The Night Ocean are H.P. Lovecraft and the anthropologist Robert Barlow. The facts of their relationship are sketchy, but they're real people. Barlow was a shrimpy sixteen-year-old fan of Lovecraft's Weird fiction, and after a short exchange of letters, he invited the forty-three-year-old writer to stay with him and his mother in Florida. Given that Lovecraft slept in the small house for seven weeks, and Barlow was gay, it's easy to speculate that the two had mutual interests that went beyond Lovecraft's fictional Yog-Sothoth. Lovecraft died from cancer of the small intestine a few years later, and Barlow, still young, went on to become a poet and leading authority on Aztec civilization. While they were together, the two collaborated on a story called "The Night Ocean"—the last fiction either of them ever wrote, and where La Farge takes his cue.
The book begins with the imagined story of Marina Willet, who thinks her husband Charlie's suicide is a hoax. In pursuing the case, she tells the story of how Charlie got enmeshed in Lovecraft. She goes from knowing very little about Lovecraft to an empathic understanding of why Charlie, and many other people like him, find the world to be such a difficult place to live, and what they do to keep living. "What Charlie was good at," she says, "was immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts." She finds this immersion is what leads Charlie to discover more about Barlow, a book deal with Harper-Collins, the eventual inflammation of Internet trolls (on Gawker, no less!), being institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital, and his eventual disappearance into the waters of the Agawam Lake.
The Night Ocean is a story full of imagined historical possibilities. There's the question of whether Lovecraft was gay, whether Barlow's suicide was a hoax, and whether Charlie killed himself. The list goes on. "It's more interesting to write a book about the question," La Farge said in a recent interview at Community Books. History has blank spots we'll never understand definitively, but by asking questions about the gaps in Lovecraft's story, La Farge achieves something much more powerful than a simple answer to whether Lovecraft was gay. Focusing on the question instead lets him explore how fiction can access things that feel more truthful than straight history.
The hoaxes in The Night Ocean are stories within the bigger story, and La Farge is adept at employing the ancient metafictional technique of mise en abîme. As Scheherazade told stories to keep herself from being beheaded in One Thousand and One Nights, Marina tells stories to keep the search for Charlie alive. Each story takes her deeper. Each piece of research she presents—Lovecraft's erotic diary, transcripts from a Canadian, pretending to be Barlow—furthers her dive into an understanding of why Charlie went missing. Sentences that could fit inside an exposé in The Atlantic stop being fact-checked and on the next page Lovecraft is writing in his diary about the time he went down to the dock for Ablo (oral sex). A child named Ursula K. Le Guin wants to know why Martians are always green. Because of all the cameos and constant use of research, the text perpetuates a type of hoax on the sentence level. You can either spend more time Googling than reading to figure out what's factually true, or give in to the reality of the text.
H.P. Lovecraft animates the book like Belano does Bolaño's Savage Detectives, but ultimately Lovecraft is a deeper and more complex figure. He is the skeleton key that characters in the novel use to open doors to self-understanding. In life, Lovecraft was racist, and afraid of most people. The Night Ocean doesn't excuse, avoid, or invalidate this fact, but sets its characters, as they progress through history in their research, to resist.
In the novel, after Lovecraft dies, Barlow goes to the British Library to research Nahua texts. He's trying to figure out how to go on, and what to love in Lovecraft's absence. "Why bother?" Lovecraft appears beside him and asks. "After all, there's nothing especially lovable about a billowing collection of atoms, spiraling around in compliance with laws that have nothing to do with us." The Night Ocean is a search for that love.
Hayden Bennett is the deputy editor of The Believer.