Waxing Press

Book Review: The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

book reviewsIan WissmanComment

I made the mistake of entering this book expecting something Lovecraftian. I should have known better, after all, I had read (and loved) Paul La Farge's 2002 masterpiece Haussmann, or the Distinction, which also takes historical figures and re-purposes their lives for fiction. But for some reason, the evocation of H.P. Lovecraft, and my ancillary obsession with the Lovecraftian aesthetic, led me to anticipate this would be La Farge's Lovecraftian horror. It is not. But it is an incredible and up-ending examination of narrative truth, the function of fact, and the power of hoax to destroy lives, literally, figuratively, respectively and every which way to Sunday. This is the post-truth novel of the 21st century.

When Charles sets out on his Love-quest to discover the true nature of "Howard's" (H.P. Lovecraft) relationship with the teen-aged "Barlovius" (Barlow), it sets off a series of events that lead to his suicide. This is basically on page 2, by the way, so I haven't spoilt nothin’. The real quest, then, is one for Charles’s widow Marina to put the pieces back together to uncover the story that Charlie uncovered after the uncovered story he uncovered was discovered to be a hoax, perpetrated on the world (Charlie, included). (There's a lot of layers here.) The way La Farge stacks the narrative layers like a cake made of crepes is delicate and ingenious and delicious. The layers are separate and distinct but each carries with it elements of the other layers—players from Lovecraft's fandom cycle in and out of young Barlow's biographical story while some of the same cast shows up again, later, in a man named L.C. Spinks's story, the famed collection of Lovecraft manuscripts once in Barlow's possession slips like a shadow through the book as a kind of MacGuffin. By the time it's all over, the reader can barely parse the facts from the fiction, the truth from the lies, the rights from the wrongs. Marina tries to do some of the hard, raw work for us, but by this point, we're not all too sure we can trust her either. It’s perhaps not since Poe that a writer has so devilishly employed unreliability to a narrative so deftly, so insidiously as this.

I was struck particularly in the end by the power of our inability as readers to filter fiction from fact, and how even when confronted with figures of authority, we're still unable to come to a confirmed sense of truth. I reflected a lot on the current state of media and the spouting of "fake news." I thought about how it seems so "easy" to point out bullshit like Brietbart articles or Fox News talking heads for their obvious bias, lack of reference, shabby writing, absence of journalistic ethics, etc. But more nefarious are those formats and mediums that don't necessarily get it wrong, but they don't really get it right either. They're the ones that spit out lazy writing full of half-truths with references manipulated to fit the narrative rather than to mete out the truth. Those publications are the ones that muck up the truth by being shoddy and unengaged with the process. They present the right problems but come to false conclusions even though they have applied seemingly logical means to achieve their ends.

The fake news that is the danger isn't the one with screaming headlines shared on Facebook by your former high school classmates. It's so much more furtive and unassuming. It comes in from the black ocean waters at the darkest midnight hour to swoon your loved ones and cradle them back under the cold water and gloomy depths where truth and democracy dies. La Farge’s book doesn’t ring so politically on the page, but when we apply the lessons learned in it, we see the deeper darkness of the times, which I think all great fiction does.