Paul La Farge's novel The Night Ocean starts when Marina Willett's husband Charlie goes missing and is presumed dead by suicide. She believes her husband's death is a hoax, and starts to look for him. The Night Ocean tracks Marina's search, from New York to Mexico City to Canada, and deep into the history of the twentieth century. Paul La Farge talked with Rivka Galchen about the book on March 8th, 2017, at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. A slightly edited transcript follows.
I. IT'S A GIANT SQUID
RIVKA GALCHEN: Much of this novel centers around the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft…
PAUL LA FARGE: Mhm.
RG: And specifically on the short period of time when he lived a young fan, a sixteen year old boy named Barlow. Lovecraft and Barlow’s relationship is a love story of sorts, and more than enough for a novel, but you choose to start the book in the present, with Marina, a woman whose husband Charlie has disappeared while researching and thinking about Lovecraft and Barlow.
PLF: My hope was that the book might appeal to people who are not already Lovecraft devotees. Lovecraft is a complicated and in some ways a problematic figure. He's become increasingly polarizing these days, because, aside from his weird relationship with Barlow, he expressed horrific, racist, xenophobic, misogynist, antisemitic statements in his letters and conversations. So I don't want to assume that my readers are all on board with Lovecraft and with Lovecraft's project.
Someone needs to lead us into the world, and for me that person is Marina. She has the advantage, unlike more or less all of the other characters in the novel, of being both sane and honest.
RG: I was interested in the way that Marina doesn't know what happened to Charlie. She continues not to know for a long time, and she's really holds onto this not-knowingness. Was this something you were consciously lining up with the Lovecraft story, and all the fans and academics pursuing his secrets, his unknowables? Or did that just grow naturally?
PLF: That was part of the idea of the book. Lovecraft's stories are about the secret truths of the cosmos, and you learn, if you read them, that all of these horrible things turn out to be true. The Earth is basically run by giant monsters who are going to destroy civilization. But there's also this feeling in the stories, that you go from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. You're slowly uncovering facts. Highly alternative facts about the state of the cosmos. I wanted to tell a story like that. Also, I love that Lovecraft's stories are about people who read, and who learn things through books. But I didn't want to tell a supernatural story. I didn't want the answer to be: Oh, and by the way, it's a giant squid.
RG: In the lake.
PLF: Right. Giant squid rises from the lake, now we know the answer. We're all doomed because of the giant squid. I wanted to tell a story about how people know and don't know each other. About the things that we don't know about each other and how those things either do come to light or maybe don't.
II. RESURRECTING THEM
RG: Tell us a little bit about a text that is essential in this novel, the Erotonomicon.
PLF: OK. Charlie stumbles on a book which purports to be H.P. Lovecraft's erotic diary. Which, if you know Lovecraft's biography, is a kind of horrible joke. Lovecraft was more or less asexual. He was married briefly. It didn't go well. The thought that he would have kept an erotic diary is very discrepant. But here it is, and all of a sudden there's a window into a side of him that no one knows anything about.
Not only did he have a love life, it turns out, but it was really unsavory and centered mostly on children, young boys and teenagers. The horror of his stories gives way to a different kind of horror—the horror of his id.
RG: You made a big decision with the Erotonomicon, in that the reader remains uncertain as to whether it’s a real Lovecraft creation or just a hoax. Or, maybe that's me.
RG: When I read the novel, I felt that there was room to believe that it was a genuine finding.
PLF: This book began with somebody telling me a story about Lovecraft going to Florida to spend two months with a sixteen year-old fan. Which makes this big question mark. It raises questions about who Lovecraft is. We know Barlow was gay, and it's easy to infer that he was at least somewhat in love with Lovecraft. The evidence was there, you just read a little bit between the lines and you can find it.
Then the question is: What did Lovecraft feel? There's a tradition of speculating about Lovecraft's sexuality. It comes up in various biographies. People say, “Oh, maybe he was gay.” I think it's more interesting just to put the question out there, and to write a book about the question. And ask: Well, what does the question mean? Why do people want to know that?
RG: Another interesting thing is that Marina, for a wife, is in many ways quite cold and there are questions she never asks Charlie. That’s a strange way to investigate. And that makes her an interesting choice of voice for your frame narrative.
PLF: I don't know if she's cold. She's certainly a character who has her own life. She's busy, she has a career. She's a psychiatrist. She has a field of study that she's pursuing and writing about and increasingly engaged with—it's not that she doesn't care about Charlie.
RG: Right. I didn’t get the impression that she didn’t care. But I did think it was an interesting frame, that she is at once somewhat reluctant to know, but that also her job is to quietly know.
PLF: Yeah. I think you need someone like that to balance out all of the obsessive people who pass through this world. All of the people who just stuff their heads with data about Lovecraft and Barlow in pursuit of some secret truth. And she can at least be reasonable, and say: Okay, I need to know this much. But maybe knowing more than that would not be a good use of my time.
RG: Charlie works writing long profiles of difficult personalities. Profiles of people who are incredibly compelling in one way or another, but who through some aspect of their character, have extraordinary difficulty fulfilling the more ordinary requirements of life—making a living, showing up predictably, finishing a project, etc. I was curious: Who in the novel is someone who Charlie would profile? Is Charlie himself one of these characters?
PLF: Yeah, surely he is. He sees himself as a little bit broken. He's gone through some fairly rough stuff in his childhood. He's lost one of his parents in a particularly ugly way; a couple of events lined up so that he lost his father and in a way he lost the memory of his father, his father's identity changed for him. He's also still looking for his father. He wants to undo the past. He imagines that if he can go back and know enough about these broken people, it'll be like a kind of act of healing. He can restore them to some kind of wholeness.
RG: It's moving, yeah.
PLF: It's a fantasy I feel that fiction writers have. We write stories about broken people because they're interesting. Broken people are more interesting than whole people. But also we feel like maybe if we can put them together and assemble them in some coherent way, we're restoring them.
RG: Resurrecting them.
PLF: We're resurrecting them.
III. THE MISSING MALE BODY
RG: There's something beautiful about the way the book is structured in some way around missing male bodies. I had a friend use the phrase recently: The missing female body is “a pre-credit trope.” As in: the body has gone missing before the story has even properly begun. And in your novel: I think it changes everything that the missing body is a male one. And the narrator who guides and knows is female. It’s the inversion of what we’re accustomed to. I was wondering of whether that was a conscious choice for you. Part of what makes me ask this is a memory of a Lovecraft story—it’s the one about this crazy powerful wizard, and you finally figure out that the reason he's trying to have his daughter mate with this other person is because his daughter is a female and so she can't be reincarnated as the great spirit.
PLF: Yeah. That's practically the only female character in Lovecraft. And at the end of the story we learn that she's possessed by the spirit of her father.
RG: And imperfectly possessed.
PLF: The ladies just don't get a break. Yeah, maybe we could retitle my book Gone Guy. Is it too late? I think it's a great observation and I'm not sure how to answer it. We are trying to find the bodies. We're in this world of books and words and stories and minds. Lovecraft is very heady. There are a lot of tentacles and, you know: The nameless stench that rose from the unspeakable abyss. It's great, but it's cerebral. A lot of my book is caught up in that space of libraries, and people riffling through old newspapers to look for clues and exchanging messages and everything is very textual. But what you're really looking for in all of that is the body.
RG: And Charlie does go looking for bodies. He goes to Mexico City. He travels.
PLF: Yeah, he travels.
RG: I was curious what you thought about the cameo problem. It's so exciting when William Burroughs shows up, and yet, how do you manage that? Because everyone has a William Burroughs idea. And Lovecraft and Barlow are cameos. There are a lot of cameo figures.
PLF: I was very lucky—I had this fellowship at the New York Public Library—you’ve had the same one. I spent nine months reading about all of these people. I made obsessive notes, and I got lost the way the people in the book get lost. And I have hundreds of pages of biographies and timelines and quotations and I found pictures of all of my characters. I tried to form as good an image as I could of them.
RG: But there's a strong imaginative element, still.
PLF: You would think.
PLF: A lot of these characters were so profoundly strange that if you just write down the things they said, it feels like fiction.
IV. THE RIGHT DINNER PARTNER
RG: Tell us a little bit about how your interest in Lovecraft began.
PLF: The embarrassing story of my childhood. I read Lovecraft as a kid. I was not alone in that, I hope. But I stumbled onto Lovecraft stories through the game Dungeons and Dragons: a total nerd confession here. And then I became kind of obsessed with him. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the early 1980s, and it felt super Lovecraftian. It really felt like the world was doomed. The giant squid is just over there in the Hudson. We're all about to lose our minds. Reading Lovecraft felt very—
PLF: Realist and sort of comforting. Because I was like, well, the world is awful and threatening and scary but at least now I know the secret.
RG: You're an initiate.
PLF: I'm an initiate. Everyone else is just wandering around living their ordinary lives and shooting up on the steps of the building across the street, and whatever. But I know what's actually going on. Wake up, sheeple. I got really into it.
There's a scene early in the book where Charlie and his friend Eric go out in the middle of the night and walk up and down broadway in black robes holding signs that say, "The End of the World is Nigh, give to the cult of Cthulhu." And, I did that. That was me.
RG: And you're still around.
PLF: Shockingly. The only way I can explain it is that my friend and I were so weird that everyone just left us alone. We were weirder than the other people on Broadway at three in the morning in 1982.
RG: The book is dedicated to Robert Kelly. You're saying that Lovecraft is a childhood love, but it's not the first novel you write. It's the novel you write now. So how did it come back to you?
PLF: Yeah, through Robert. Robert Kelly is a wonderful novelist and poet who teaches at Bard College. I was the writer in residence there in 2005. And Robert said: Oh, well here you are. You're a writer, I'm a writer. Let's go have dinner. So we did. And we started talking about Lovecraft. I was ashamed, I thought I was going to embarrass myself, but it turned out—
RG: That you found the right dinner partner.
PLF: I found the right dinner partner. He not only had read all of Lovecraft but had been friends with one of Lovecraft's closest friends so there was this kind of wonderful generational stretch so that some guy who was young when Lovecraft was old was then old when Robert was young, and I got to hear the story. And Robert told me about Lovecraft and Barlow. And he said, "Did you know that H.P. Lovecraft went to Florida and spent all this time with a sixteen-year-old gay fan who then went on to have a very interesting life. He became a poet, and an anthropologist, and an authority of the civilization of the Aztecs. And he lived in Mexico and he spoke all these languages and he did all these things. And I said I had no idea. But man, that sounds like a good book.
V. ENTER AUDIENCE
RG: Maybe we could open it up to the audience for questions.
AUDIENCE: So what fascinates you—not only in this novel, but in your other work—about forgery? Is it in some way related to your thoughts about what fiction writers do?
PLF: Forgery feels to me like it's on the same spectrum as fiction writing. You're pushing the space where reality and fantasy meet a little closer to reality. You're bringing the fantasy a little more into the real, and saying, this isn't just something I made up. This isn't just framed by the category of fiction, or the form of the novel or the story. I had a strange experience yesterday evening. I'm teaching a class at Columbia, on people who have perpetrated literary hoaxes. I assigned the book Sarah, by J.T. Leroy, who it turns out is a constructed persona, and the actual author is a woman named Laura Albert. She was outed and there was a whole scandal about twelve years ago. We managed to get her on the phone to talk to us.
RG: Probably her.
PLF: That was indeed a question. We had all kinds of questions, about why she did this, why did she perpetrate this hoax? What could she possibly have been thinking? She must have known she would be found out and that her reputation would be ruined. All of those things did happen. She was able to answer some of the questions, and not others. But the main thing that was striking, listening to her, was just how much she sounds just like other fiction writers talking about fiction. It's almost solving the same problem in a different way.
A: But there's a moral continuum, right? That perhaps a fiction writer is on the safe of the legal side of.
PLF: Certainly on the legal continuum, yeah. That's absolutely true. With this book I'm not trying to perpetrate a hoax. This book is a novel and doesn't pretend to be something it's not. There are surely some grave moral questions that arise when you write from an assumed identity and forget that there are real people who have that identity, people who you're exploiting. But fiction in its heart doesn't feel to me like a moral activity. It feels like a speculative activity, or an investigative activity, or a reflective activity.
A: There's another text called "The Night Ocean."
A: Can you talk about your relationship with that?
PLF: Absolutely. One thing Lovecraft and Barlow did while they were friends was that Barlow would write stories and Lovecraft would revise them. Barlow would show them to his teacher, his friend, his mentor. Lovecraft would give him back notes. They collaborated this way on about six stories. And "The Night Ocean" was the last of those. It's a very haunting, enigmatic story. It's a very sad story. It's a story about someone who's almost able to capture a strange truth about the world, but isn't. Ultimately the horror in “The Night Ocean” isn't that we learn that there's a giant squid, it's that we can't figure it out. We just won't know. We saw it flash by, but we don't even know if it was a squid.
I thought about Barlow trying to write about Lovecraft, and thinking: I can't know what's on this person's mind. I've been close to him for years. I feel like he's my surrogate father. He's my surrogate lover. He's my writing teacher. And I still don't know what he wants. There's a sadness there. “The Night Ocean” also falls in an interesting place in their biographies, because it's the last short story that either of them ever wrote. Barlow quit writing fiction after that, and Lovecraft died. It's a final moment for both of them.
Paul La Farge is the author of the novels The Artist of the Missing (1999), Haussmann, or the Distinction (2001), and Luminous Airplanes (2011), as well as The Facts of Winter (2005), a book of imaginary dreams. In 2013-14 he was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Rivka Galchen's 2008 first novel Atmospheric Disturbances and her 2014 story collection American Innovations were both New York Times Best Books of the Year. She has received many awards as well as an MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Galchen lives in New York City.