Paul La Farge’s new novel The Night Ocean is a compelling, if occasionally murky, tale about characters who aren’t what they seem and how they create completely fictional lives for themselves. And what happens when they’re caught at it.
Marina Willett’s husband Charlie, who had just published a book about classic horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s affair with fan Robert Barlow, has disappeared and may have committed suicide. The fact that the book was -SPOILER ALERT- proven to be a fraud by scholars and followers of Lovecraft’s works and life, probably led to Charlie’s taking flight from the psychiatric hospital he had been staying.
Marina then goes and investigates the reasons behind Charlie’s disappearance, retracing the steps Charlie took to uncover the story behind Lovecraft & Barlow, and quickly becomes immersed in a non stop sequence of contradicting stories and “facts” by a master liar, the supposedly dead Barlow.
La Farge spins a good yarn,creating a suitable (if inaccurate) historical background dating from the 1930s that resonates through to the present day (2012) setting of the book. (Night Ocean seems to be taking place in an alternative universe, where for example communist busting Senator Joe McCarthy hunted down pulp fiction writers in the 1950s!) Lots of Lovecraft’s fellow pulp writers of the time get name checked, though they, and Lovecraft, don’t come off very well as people. Fans of Lovecraft, Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim, and Isaac Asimov aren’t going to like the way they’re portrayed. At first. (That’s a hint.)
My only complaint with the book is the way La Farge gets some of Lovecraft’s biography wrong, as well as ignoring (or ridiculing) the impact of his works. (ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT: Let’s also forget the, ahem, “questionable” subplot that suggests Lovecraft was a pedophile taking sexual advantage of an underage fan. Yes, that part of the story is later revealed as a fraud, but still…) I wasn’t expecting the book to focus solely on Lovecraft, but why make him an important focus of the story in the beginning then toss him off as a dramatic tease afterwards?
Does Marina eventually find closure? The book’s very last scene seems to answer that question, sort of. Don’t expect any loose ends to be cleared up.
If you can ignore the portrayal of Lovecraft and his peers (and that frustrating ending), you’ll certainly enjoy The Night Ocean.
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