MARCH 10, 2017
PAUL LA FARGE’S amazing new novel, The Night Ocean, opens like a classic mystery. Journalist Charlie Willett, whose obsession with an obscure episode in the life of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft has landed him in a mental hospital, escapes and apparently commits suicide by drowning himself in a lake. But Charlie’s estranged wife, Marina, has reason to suspect that he isn’t really dead.
As Marina relates the history of Charlie’s obsession and begins her own search for answers, The Night Ocean morphs into something stranger and more wonderful: a story about the hypnotic power of storytelling that moves back and forth in time and touches on events as diverse as the Jayson Blair scandal, the HUAC anti-communism hearings, and the drug-fueled misadventures of William S. Burroughs. By the end, it’s become one of those impossible-to-categorize books that seems to constitute its own genre — and that can’t be recommended highly enough.
I interviewed Paul La Farge via email.
MATT RUFF: One of the things I love about The Night Ocean is how you’re constantly pulling the rug out from under the reader. Every time I thought I finally had a handle on the story, you’d throw in a narrative pivot that changed my understanding of what was going on. And yet in hindsight, all of these twists form a natural progression; the novel makes perfect sense, and the ending is satisfying.
So my first question is: How’d you do that? What was your initial inspiration? Did you map out the whole novel in advance, or did you start with a basic concept and build on it as you went along?
PAUL LA FARGE: Like a lot of books, The Night Ocean started as something fairly different from what it finally became. I began working on it in 2005, and I knew it would be about the time Lovecraft spent with Robert H. Barlow in Florida in the summer of 1934 and ’35, and the question of what might have happened over the course of those two long visits. I didn’t want to answer the question, exactly — it seemed to me that any way you answered it would be less interesting than the question itself. What I wanted to do was to write a novel about the question, and I guess also about the reasons why people might ask it (literary curiosity? prurient curiosity?). I knew that Lovecraft’s intimate diary would be part of the story, and that it would provoke a scandal. Someone would find the diary, and other people, fans, would react to it. I tried to write the book starting with the discovery of the diary, but it didn’t work. The story felt too remote from me, and from my imaginary reader.
At the same time, I knew that I wanted to use Lovecraft’s novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as a reference point. I was drawn to that book because it’s one of the most autobiographical of Lovecraft’s stories: it’s about a young man who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and is fascinated by the city’s history and its architecture; he takes long walks at night, has a lively interest in genealogy, and feels more at home in the past than in the present. All of which was of course true of Lovecraft also. Ward has a quality of self-disclosure that’s unusual in Lovecraft’s fiction, and I thought it might be useful for my purposes, since I was trying to tell a story about a secret or at least a very private aspect of Lovecraft’s life.
I bounced back and forth between Ward and the story of Lovecraft and Barlow for a long time, and eventually it occurred to me that I might be able to draw on the structure of Ward. So I sat down and wrote an outline of the events in Ward, and I looked for correspondences between that outline and the events I’d thought of as belonging to The Night Ocean. And suddenly the plot of The Night Ocean just kind of lined itself up along the structure of Ward — it was almost eerie.
That said, I didn’t follow the plot of Ward slavishly. Among other things, I didn’t telegraph the coming horrors nearly as much as Lovecraft does, because I wanted my book to do just what you say it does: to pull out the rug, to leave the reader a little off-balance, and maybe asking questions not only about what’s happening in this story, but what happens generally when you entrust yourself to a story. But if The Night Ocean has a Lovecraftian feeling of progressive revelation, it’s because of that structure. Lovecraft was a master of the progressive revelation.
I had another reason for borrowing from Ward. The idea of literary possession runs through The Night Ocean; it’s a novel about people who become obsessed with, and even possessed by, other people’s stories. So it seemed fitting that my novel be possessed by another novel’s structure. And Ward is about possession, which makes it doubly apt.
The Night Ocean offers a number of different stories, of varying degrees of plausibility, about what went on between H. P. Lovecraft and his young fan Robert Barlow. How much do we actually know about their relationship? Did you turn up anything conclusive in your research?
We know a certain amount about what actually happened between Lovecraft and Barlow from Lovecraft’s letters: he wrote 159 letters to Barlow over the course of their friendship, and he sent dozens of letters to friends and relatives describing his escapades with Barlow in Florida. After Lovecraft’s death, Barlow wrote two memoirs of those Florida visits, which were a pivotal moment in his life. The drafts of both are in the John Hay Library at Brown University, and they contain some material that isn’t in the final versions. We also have letters that Barlow sent to his literary friends later on. So we have a fairly large amount of information about what Lovecraft and Barlow did together, and I mined all of it for The Night Ocean: the rowing on the lake, the expedition to gather strawberries, the trip to Silver Springs, where they rode in a glass-bottomed boat …
There’s nothing in all that material that will tell you for certain what Barlow felt for Lovecraft, or vice versa. Barlow was gay, and he was romancing local (male) youth before and after Lovecraft’s visit. Lovecraft’s sexuality is less obvious. In one of his memoirs, Barlow refers to Lovecraft as “a closet Quetzalcoatl,” which is an interesting phrase; but closet didn’t connote queerness until the 1960s. I found an interesting letter in the archives at Brown: Barlow’s friend George Leite has just read Barlow’s reminiscence of Lovecraft, and he writes that it, the memoir, is “a warm sensitive picture, though I must admit it took a great deal of interlinear reading.” What did Leite find between the lines? He doesn’t say in the letter, and we’ll likely never know.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Barlow was in love with Lovecraft, and that Lovecraft did not return his affection, certainly not in a physical way. But The Night Ocean is a novel, and so in the end I could use the ambiguity of the historical evidence, such as it is, to tell the story I wanted to tell without grossly betraying the facts.
What’s your own relationship with Lovecraft like? Are you a fan?
I was definitely a Lovecraft fan when I was a kid. The story in The Night Ocean about two friends who put on black robes and walk up and down Broadway in the middle of the night, holding signs that read, GIVE TO THE CULT OF CTHULHU, is all too autobiographical. Fortunately, nothing bad ever happened. I think someone may even have given us some spare change.
My feelings about Lovecraft’s work are more complicated now, both because I’m more sophisticated as a reader, and because I know more about Lovecraft’s biography. Among other things, I’ve read the letters he wrote to his aunt from New York City, in which he rails against black people and Jews and Asians and Catholics and Poles and French Canadians and more or less everyone else. When I read Lovecraft’s stories, I can’t help thinking about those letters, and how his fear and contempt for groups of actual human beings (with whom, in the end, he had little contact) may have informed the atmosphere of horror and dread in the fiction. And yet I still enjoy his work. Lovecraft is a phenomenally good storyteller, and for the most part, I think, he succeeded in transforming his prejudices into a fantastical universe which speaks to people who aren’t racists and xenophobes.
The question of how to deal with “problematic” artists comes up a lot in The Night Ocean. The character Charlie Willett, who’s black, tries to see beyond Lovecraft’s racism and embrace him as a complex, flawed human being. But another character, after describing what he witnessed at the Belsen concentration camp, pronounces Lovecraft a monster for his anti-Semitism: “From that moment on, I could only think of Lovecraft’s work as evil, and I was ashamed that I had ever admired him.”
Where do you fall on this spectrum? I assume, like Charlie, you find value in trying to understand even horrible human beings. But are there sins too big for you to see past, or that poison an artist’s work for you?
I went to a Lovecraft convention in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2015, and talked about this question with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a Canadian writer who edited She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of feminist short stories set in a Lovecraftian universe. She made the point that Lovecraft is so polarizing that he’s become pedagogically useful: he’s the starting point for a conversation about race and racism. I think she’s right, and I suspect you’d agree, given all the things Lovecraft Country is about. Lovecraft is fascinating and if you engage with him now you end up talking about racism, which is not a bad thing to talk about.
More generally, as a novelist, I’m drawn to horrible human beings, or at least to very difficult ones, like Lovecraft. They’re psychologically interesting, and they occasionally do horrible things, which can really drive a plot.
When it comes to appreciating the work of artists who were also horrible human beings, the situation is more complicated, but I don’t think there’s a biographical line beyond which I’m unwilling to consider a writer’s work, provided that the work is worth considering in itself. I read Céline even as I reject his anti-Semitism. I read Irène Némirovsky, too, although she moved in pro-Fascist circles in Paris before World War II. Némirovsky’s sins were surely less than those of Céline; but on the other hand Céline’s novels are richer, and I get more out of them. For me, the really poisonous sin is to make art that doesn’t do anything with the artist’s idiotic, venal, atrocious, et cetera, convictions: to make art that requires you to agree with it, rather than presenting itself to you as a problem, as a question.
That said, if Hitler had written a novel, would I read it? Would I read a short story by Jeffrey Dahmer? I don’t know. When I was researching The Night Ocean, I read Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, which is her biography of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp. It was clear that although Sereny came to the project with a great deal of courage and persistence, she wasn’t trying to empathize with Stangl, and I can’t imagine how or why she would have tried. Stangl’s inner world, as it appears in the biography, is so limited and so full of bullshit that there’s little room for empathy. And actually for that reason I have trouble imagining that a Hitler or a Dahmer could ever write anything I’d want to read. Making art takes more self-awareness than a person like that is capable of.
Lovecraft and Barlow aren’t the only real-life characters to appear in The Night Ocean. Parts of the novel are like a Who’s Who of early science-fiction fandom, and Roy Cohn, Edward R. Murrow, and Whittaker Chambers all make cameo appearances. I’ve done this sort of thing in my own novels, and part of the fun, for me, is deciding how far I’m allowed to go in departing from the historical and biographical record. What sort of ground rules did you set for yourself?
For me, the fun was trying to represent all of these people as they might actually have been, to depart as little as possible from what I knew about them. The Night Ocean is about a literary hoax, among other things, and I guess I thought of myself as perpetrating my own little hoax, by doing all of this research into the actual lives of the characters, and then presenting them as plausibly as I could.
And actually, as it happened, much of The Night Ocean grew out of what I knew about the lives of the historical people who appear in it. In an early version of the book, I invented characters who were loosely based on the Futurians and so on, but as I read more about their actual lives, I became fascinated not only by their strangeness, but also by their texture: the way one thing followed, or didn’t follow, from another; the way their paths crossed and diverged; the way their personalities revealed themselves in the things they did and didn’t do. At that point my characters started to seem artificial to me: novelistic. I returned to the actual Futurians, the actual Roy Cohn, Whittaker Chambers, et cetera, to capture something of the texture I’d found in their biographies, their memoirs, their letters. I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but that was one of my goals. Another was to write a novel with a lot of people in it: to give the reader a world, rather than a family or an English drawing-room. I wanted to create a feeling of multitude, of expansiveness.
Literary hoaxes and the damage they do are another big concern in the novel. Were there any specific instances of fraud or imposture that got you thinking about this subject?
I’ve been intrigued by literary hoaxes for a while now. I followed the story of JT LeRoy as it unfolded in the late 1990s and early 2000s: an instance of a writer assuming a fictitious persona, and getting rebuked and even ruined for it. I was interested both in why someone would assume a persona, and why the act of unmasking seems so socially important, especially in the case of a writer like LeRoy, whose books were always presented as works of fiction. In the same way, I’m fascinated by Clifford Irving’s biography of the art forger Elmyr de Hory, and the fact that Irving went on to perpetrate his own hoax, the Autobiography of Howard Hughes, which landed him in jail. It’s almost as if there were something contagious about fakery: as if, when you saw it done, you became tempted to do it yourself …
And in fact I have done it myself. I published a book called The Facts of Winter, a collection of imaginary dreams, which was attributed to the fictitious French poet Paul Poissel. I toured the country — well, the Northeast and part of the Midwest — giving a talk about the life and work of Poissel. It made some people very angry, when they realized that there was in fact no such writer, even though the stakes were relatively low: I wasn’t claiming that Poissel had been any kind of sensation, or that he’d been connected to anything remarkable. I was just claiming that he had been. And there was some power in that. It was almost like magic, like I’d brought a new person into the world. And then when it turned out that there wasn’t a new person, really, the energy that had gone into believing in him was released in the form of anger. This is a strange thing to assert, but I’m going to assert it anyway: hoaxes are a kind of temporary supernatural activity. They’re a way to make the world bend to your will in a way that it never would, naturally.
So maybe there’s something a little Lovecraftian about hoaxes, too. Lovecraft certainly seems to have enjoyed them. He perpetrated one with Barlow: a scurrilous little story called “The Battle that Ended the Century,” which made fun of everyone in fandom. The two of them mailed it out to their friends and then denied knowing anything about it. Lovecraft perpetrated another hoax in the form of the Necronomicon, the famous forbidden book, which appears again and again in his stories, and in the stories of his friends — he encouraged them to mention it in their stories so that it would seem more real to the fans. Lovecraft told anyone who asked that the Necronomicon was a fake, but there are still people who think it’s a real book. And in fact some Lovecraft fans have been all too willing to play along with the hoax, and to sneak entries for the Necronomicon into library card catalogs, and the catalogs of rare-book dealers. There was a mass-market paperback Necronomicon for sale when I was a kid. I bought it, hoping to learn the secret truths of the universe, and I was very disappointed. But its existence suggests that, once you produce a sufficiently interesting fake thing, it encourages fakery in others.
The Night Ocean takes its title from a short story that Lovecraft and Barlow co-authored. How much did the story influence your writing of the novel?
Quite a lot. “The Night Ocean” was the last work of fiction Lovecraft and Barlow worked on together; it was also one of the last pieces of fiction Lovecraft worked on at all. He revised “The Night Ocean” in the summer of 1936, and died in the winter of 1937. After “The Night Ocean,” Barlow’s life also went in a different direction: he dropped out of art school, moved to California, and became a poet and an anthropologist. He wrote a few more stories but no more works of weird fiction.
So the story represents an ending, but also a turning point, and you can feel that, I think, in the story itself. “The Night Ocean” is about an encounter between an artist and a mystery, a thing he sees, or imagines he sees, in the ocean near the vacation cottage he’s rented. He tries to understand it and finally he accepts that he’s not going to get the resolution he hoped for. The world is unknowable and terrible and that’s just how it is. I imagine Barlow feeling that way about Lovecraft, toward the end of their time together: he wanted something from Lovecraft; he gave something to Lovecraft, emotionally, and what he got in return was not nothing, but it wasn’t quite something, either. That’s a theme that comes up again and again in my book. Without wanting to give too much away, The Night Ocean is about people bumping up against mystery, and trying to figure out how to solve it, or to reconcile themselves to the aspects of it that remain mysterious. And it’s also about being haunted.