Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27
First I thought “The Night Ocean” was about a missing man. Then I thought the book was about H. P. Lovecraft. Then I thought it was about a man who, as a teenager, was Lovecraft’s lover. Then I thought it was about a man hiding from the world. Then I thought it was about a world being crafted by words. Then I thought it was about a woman looking for her husband and waving the world of words into being with her arms. It’s a Russian nesting doll of stories.
It’s not necessary to have Lovecraftiness, but it helps if you’ve read a story or two and done a Google search on the cult phenomenon Lovecraft has become. Then you will go into the book with the knowledge of how deeply weird and inventive Lovecraft was. Then you can sit back and let Paul La Farge spin you a tale.
“The Night Ocean” contains facts among the fiction. Many of the characters breathed real air and croaked real sentences and typed fiction or screeds or dreams. La Farge takes a basic mystery about the elusive Lovecraft and nails one literary face after another on him, until it’s impossible to tell which story is coming or when it’s going.
Charlie Willett is the present-day investigator of Lovecraft and a purported erotic diary written by him. He meets Robert Barlow, Lovecraft’s literary executor and perhaps the young lover in the diary. Then Charlie investigates L. C. Spinks, an appliance repairman in Canada, who may have the answers to the most intriguing questions. Then Marina, Charlie’s wife, follows in Charlie’s footsteps when he disappears. This paragraph is misleading because the book begins with Charlie’s disappearance. He is never a current character, only one visible in flashback.
“The Night Ocean” is a jumble of viewpoints and time frames. There are not always clear demarcations when one narrator gives way to another. Time slips sneakily into another decade. Characters exist then and now, but which are real and which are fabrications or enhanced versions of reality? There’s a definite charm to the way La Farge intertwines his tales and reveals his “facts.”
Everyone, even the mostly normal Marina, is running from something. Marina is a psychotherapist but can’t see her own forest for the trees. Barlow is always on the brink of friendship, of knowledge, of duplicity, of happiness, of disaster. Spinks is the mystery of the Sphinx, as is mentioned more than once, in character form. He asks and answers riddles, but perhaps nothing is made clearer when he does.
This is a happy convolution if you are in the mood for it.