A tribute to H.P. Lovecraft’s work and an investigation into the posthumously deified author’s real life.
Metafiction has a long and storied history, dating back to the earliest written works, in which authors would take something from a muse, a competitor or something in between and attempt to make it better, to complicate it, to reframe it as something more or less profound. But metafiction is more established now than it has ever been, a result of both the ubiquity of literary scholarship and the ascendance of fanfiction. Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is metafiction at its finest, remixing the creative work of H.P. Lovecraft as well as his life and relationships, yet it also stands on its own as a clever, haunting and deceptively playful novel.
The Night Ocean begins in the way that many recent gothic novels have: a no-nonsense woman (in this case, psychotherapist Marina Willett) finds herself forced to confront the mysterious because of personal circumstances. Marina’s husband, Charlie, has escaped a mental institution and is thought to have drowned by suicide. Marina refuses to believe this and sets out to either find her husband alive or figure out what led him to his watery end.
This set-up can lead to wild commercial and critical success, as evidenced by Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, among others. But, much as Kostova did with her brilliant, Dracula-inspired tale, La Farge quickly abandons a traditional structure in favor of something more in tune with his inspiration. Just as Lovecraft’s work toes the line between the magical and the cynical, often putting clear-eyed, scientific characters in absurd, macabre situations, La Farge complicates Marina’s quest by forcing her to examine multiple accounts, recent and historic.
The book finds its wings in Marina’s deepening quest, yet this part of her journey may put off some readers. As La Farge widens Marina’s investigation, taking her further into her husband’s fascination with Lovecraft and, by extension, Lovecraft’s own life, The Night Ocean becomes a collection of connected stories rather than one straightforward narrative. Lovecraft, a complicated figure, comes into focus, as does his fan/lover/collaborator Robert Barlow. Famous figures make cameos, borders are traversed and Marina occasionally disappears as Lovecraft, Charlie, Barlow or others take center stage.
This isn’t Marina’s story, though. She is our window into La Farge’s twisty, Lovecraftian web, a web that is both fiction and nonfiction. In adopting and adapting Lovecraft’s life and his work, La Farge has crafted an admirably satisfying metanarrative. In fact, at some points The Night Ocean achieves ultimate-meta status, becoming self-referential and even stymieing potential paths of criticism. All of this is bold, which is perhaps why it works so well.
Nearly all of The Night Ocean comes across as authentic, even when it is playing with a reader’s engagement. The one element that doesn’t ring true is Marina, who is an effective protagonist, but who at times – particularly in the novel’s early going – seems like a male construction rather than a true heroine. She’s a brilliant woman who supports her man-child spouse, is charmed by his dorkiness and who goes searching for him after his near-certain death despite his many sins. Her character does get fleshed out as the novel clips along, but her early characterization hits the hardest, particularly as Marina cedes the stage to other characters. Marina deserves a little more; if only literary women were given the freedom to be as complicated as their male counterparts!
The big takeaway here, though, is that La Farge is at the top of his game as an historian, as a fan and particularly as a storyteller. He treats his subject with the utmost seriousness, but also doesn’t shy away from Lovecraft’s well-documented shortcomings. He also, refreshingly, doesn’t hide Lovecraft’s queerness, but also doesn’t soften the more problematic elements of his relationships. The Night Ocean is a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft’s work and an investigation into the posthumously deified author’s real life. It’s also just a damned good read.