Meta meets the metaphysical in The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge. This brilliant and dense novel is an intellectual mind game. Reality is ephemeral in a narrative that mixes facts and fantasy. While ostensibly focusing on theorizing about H.P. Lovecraft’s sexual orientation, the book ultimately leads to questions about the nature of truth, subjectivity, and the dangers inherent in believing the intricate webs writers can spin. It’s difficult not to think of some of the lyrics of the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” during and after reading the tale: “Like a circle in a spiral/Like a wheel within a wheel/Never ending or beginning/On an ever-spinning reel…”
Marina Willett is a psychoanalyst whose spouse, Charlie, became engrossed in H.P. Lovecraft. After soaring to success because of his research and hypothesis about the relationship between Lovecraft and gay teen fan Robert Barlow, Charlie falls from grace. His data becomes denounced as fraudulent. As the narrative opens, Marina talks about Charlie’s disappearance from a psychiatric hospital, and the presumption that he committed suicide by drowning. She doesn’t accept this, since the evidence is circumstantial and his body has not been recovered. The enigma of what happened to Charlie is the first of several mysteries, taking place in different locales and time periods, related to one another by personages somehow connected to Lovecraft.
In addition to narrators Marina and Charlie, Lovecraft, Barlow, and a character named L.C. Spinks (like in the riddle of the sphinx, wink-wink) also contribute their points of view. Perception tinkers with credibility as each narrator elaborately details their recollections. There’s discussion of the transmigration of souls, and how literature can alter our state of mind—and possibly state of being.
That’s all rather heady stuff. But there are also whimsically fun elements to be savored. SF Fandom, and the writers who grew out from it, is given a good-natured teasing. As is S.T. Joshi, renowned Lovecraft scholar-editor-defender. The House Un-American Activities Committee gets a comedic slap in the face, and society’s indiscriminate take on what/who is considered a threat to culture and country, is satirically addressed.
The Night Ocean, published by Penguin Press, is recommended to Lovecraft readers who aren’t looking for a horror story. It is better suited to mystery enthusiasts who will try, sometimes in vain, to extricate the pieces of historical accuracy lurking within the fiction. Those willing to take on the mental challenge will be quite stimulated by Paul La Farge’s superbly crafted novel.