There are times when Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean reads like a very well written article for a fanzine. The novels numerous forays into the personal lives and political attitudes of the Futurians, the gossip surrounding Lovecraft’s sexuality and the speculation around Richard Barlow’s suicide are obsessively researched and replete with multiple footnotes. Taken like this it’s the sort of book that would sit comfortably in the Best Related Work category of the Hugo Awards. Except, of course, The Night Ocean is so much more than that. What starts as an investigation into whether Lovecraft was gay becomes an intriguing discourse in revisionist history. By the sheer coincidence of being published in a post-fact world of fake news and tribal epistemology, LaFarge’s nested story-telling and unreliable narration has resonance beyond the novel’s subject matter.
Our primary narrator for the course of the book is Marina Willet, a psychiatrist who is coming to terms with the disappearance, or suicide, of Charlie her husband. Charlie made a career from profiling the lives of people who might have been famous if not for a flaw in their character or fate playing them a rough hand. His search for subjects leads him to the story of Robert Barlow* and the speculation and gossip that Barlow, in the summer of 1934, had an affair with H. P. Lovecraft. Barlow, who co-wrote The Night Ocean with Lovecraft and was known (at least at the time) for his expertise in Mexican culture, sadly took his own life after being blackmailed for his homosexuality. Or did he? Because it would appear that Charlie has found Barlow living in Canada under the assumed name of L. C. Spinks.
Ostensibly Willet is attempting to come to terms / understand why her husband vanished. However her narration never focuses on that one subject but rather shifts, constantly, making the reader wonder whether this is a book about –
• Lovecraft’s secret gay love affairs?… or,
• A man who escaped to Mexico to free himself of the salacious gossip, innuendo and hate only to fake his death when Mexico wasn’t far enough?… or
• A journalist whose unwillingness to question the veracity of the story he’s uncovered sets him up for a fall?… or
• A plaintive cry for attention from an old man?
– and that’s without mentioning LaFarge’s take on the Futurians – Pohl, Kornbluth, Wollheim and especially Doris Piserchia – or brief but lovely guest appearances from S. T. Joshi and a young Ursula K Le Guin. This lack of focus though plays to the novel’s themes about how historical truth is only as good as the memories of those relating the past. Like the reader Willet is piecing together what’s true, what’s a lie and what’s irrelevant in real time. It makes for an exciting, slightly insane, but always fascinating journey.
As clever as the novel is, its true strength isn’t its Russian doll structure but how almost hidden amongst the fact (and fiction) about these people who formed the bedrock of science fiction and dark fantasy, LaFarge is chipping away at a story of loneliness and unrequited love, of a desire to be noticed, to be significant, to leave a legacy of sorts, even if it’s a tissue of half-truths and lies. I don’t want to say much more – I know, I know, it’s a poor effort when a reviewer does a runner before getting his hands bloody with the innards of a novel – but in this instance the joy is unpeeling the novel’s many layers. While it might not always seems clear for all the footnotes and factoids, The Night Ocean is always leading the reader to a specific end-point, one that’s revelatory and shattering and like all good fiction exposes our human frailties.
* I’ll be honest here and say that I thought Barlow was a fiction of the novel. And in a sense he is… but in a more concrete sense he was a real person and much of what’s related in the book about his life is true… except for the important bits that aren’t.