A stunted book-obsessed relationship is a good setup for La Farge. As a writer he seems to have two interests. One is metafiction. His early novel “Haussmann; Or, The Distinction” (2001) passed itself off as a personal history of the planner of modern Paris, which La Farge had merely translated from the French. The book that followed it, “The Facts of Winter” (2005), was a record of dreams collected by the made-up poet Paul Poissel, who supposedly also wrote the Haussmann history. La Farge loves intertextuality, nonexistent but real-seeming books, famous people lifted from the historical record and plausibly altered, the whole Borgesian shebang.
But he also has another side, one intrigued by the dull stuff of contemporary life, by ordinary relationships, especially of the failed kind. This taste for the missed connections that make us human came out most clearly in his 2011 novel “Luminous Airplanes,” in which a slacker computer programmer falls in love with a troubled young woman. Here there was no question whether the characters went to bed; the mystery was why.
Metafictionist and novelist of sentiment, then, team up for “The Night Ocean.” At the book’s beginning, Marina Willett, a New Yorker and, in typical Lovecraft fashion, a committed rationalist (she is a psychiatrist), is faced with a mystery. Her husband, Charlie, a more impulsive type, a freelance journalist, has seemingly drowned himself in a Berkshire lake. The cause, she presumes, was despair, brought on by having been the victim of a hoax. Working on a book about Lovecraft, he had come upon a volume called the “Erotonomicon,” which appeared to be Lovecraft’s record of his sex life. As one would expect, it isn’t pretty. “In a Vile Shack in ye Warren-Streete (aptly named!),” Lovecraft supposedly writes, for example, on Feb. 24, 1925, “we tried a Lesser Summoning, but nothing Came. . . . The boy reek’d of Tobacco, a smell that pleases me not.”
Charlie quickly discovers that the book has already been exposed as a fraud, the true author its supposed editor, a man named L.C. Spinks. But Charlie doubts that Spinks, a Canadian appliance repairman, was really responsible. “It’s the riddle of the Spinks,” he jokes to Marina. Digging deeper, he finds a more satisfying answer: The author of the “Erotonomicon” is none other than the adult Barlow himself, motivated by anger at the Lovecraft acolytes who spurned him. This goes against what is publicly known. Barlow never claimed authorship. He committed suicide in 1951 in Mexico City, where he was teaching, fearing exposure as homosexual.
Barlow is dead, then — a fact that seems incontrovertible, one of the few in this bubbling stew of a book. (La Farge even includes a photocopy of his death certificate.) But Charlie soon picks up a trail that suggests Barlow faked his death and is living quietly in the town of Parry Sound, Ontario, to which Charlie now goes for the scoop. He gets the true story of what happened between Barlow and Lovecraft. Charlie’s persistence pays off when HarperCollins buys “The Book of the Law of Love,” as Charlie titles his inquiry, for $200,000. On publication he becomes a celebrity, the toast of literary Manhattan. Marina alone suspects that the “story was too good to be true,” but spouse-loyal, she holds her tongue. Then things begin to unravel. Barlow is not who he seems; the author is not whom Charlie believes; disgrace and suicide follow.
It is left to the wife to rereport her husband’s story, to make the same trip to Parry Sound and find out what is really going on. Partly, one intuits, Marina makes this effort because she too wants Lovecraft, creator of the weird, to have been less weird himself. “If he really did love Bobby, at least that would mean he was human,” one character comments. But she also goes on this journey to retrieve the man she loves. “This is not the story of our marriage,” she insists, though of course it is. And where there is love there is hope. No one, she points out, ever found her husband’s body. What if he too is faking his death? “There was a word for it in fandom’s argot,” she remembers Charlie telling her when talking about Barlow: “pseuicide.” There won’t necessarily be a clear resolution to this mystery — or to any of the other mysteries the novel poses — but then, resolution is precisely what this story seeks to frustrate. And the book’s five narrators (Marina, Charlie, Barlow, Spinks and Lovecraft) combine to tell a beauty of a tale.
“The Night Ocean” is a book full of pleasures. Though La Farge’s prose is as postmodernly fervid as Lovecraft’s is nostalgically formal, echoes of the horror writer’s work abound. The name Marina Willett recalls Marinus Willett, the investigator of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” — itself a parable, as Marina notes, “on the perils of research.” Likewise, the novel “The Night Ocean” contains in its particulars a number of allusions to the Lovecraft story that gives it its name. La Farge is a capable mimic, capturing everything from the talk of prewar science fiction fanboys to the language of modern internet trolls. And he (I’m assuming it’s La Farge) has even put up a website that purports to sell the reissued “Erotonomicon.” Dashing, playful and cleverly imagined, “The Night Ocean” emerges as an inexhaustible shaggy monster, part literary parody, part case study of the slipperiness of narrative and the seduction of a good story.