Facing an intimate audience of about 30 students, alumni and fellow novelists, author Paul LaFarge gave a talk on H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow’s lives Wednesday at the McCormack Family Theatre.
LaFarge, who has earned critical acclaim for his novels “The Artist of the Missing,” “Haussmann, or the Distinction” and “The Facts of Winter,” introduced his work in progress, a novel titled “The Night Ocean” that centers around the lives and friendship of Barlow and Lovecraft.
As LaFarge read a passage from “The Night Ocean,” his voice became heavier. Some members of the audience leaned forward in their seats, eyes fixated on the author, while others sat back in their chairs and closed their eyes, as if letting the language flow through them. The audience occasionally chuckled at the humor-studded passage as they absorbed the descriptive writing.
“It’s so hard to love the world,” Barlow muses in “The Night Ocean.” Another character replies that “After all, there’s nothing especially lovable about the billowing collection of atoms, spiraling around in compliance with laws that have nothing to do with us.”
“The Night Ocean” focuses on the themes of love and hoaxes. It employs an intricate structure — though the central figure is Barlow, the timeline of the novel spans 80 years, from 1934 to 2014.
The novel is inspired by both Lovecraft and Barlow themselves and their relationship. LaFarge noted that there is a “notorious blank spot in the history record” because little is certain about the depth of the relationship between the two writers.
Though “I won’t excuse Lovecraft’s racism, his beliefs — for all their wild hatefulness — seemed very much like the beliefs of a person who felt himself unable to live and who resented and feared all the people he saw around him,” LaFarge said. “But even though (Barlow’s) life was infinitely more full than Lovecraft’s, Barlow suffered from … the fear that even though you inhabit a warm body, even though … the world’s rich variety of experiences are presenting themselves to you, you aren’t living.”
Utilizing a form of “hoax” in his novel “Haussman, or the Distinction,” LaFarge called himself the translator of a French novel by the fictional author Paul Poissel.
In “The Night Ocean,” LaFarge further explored the premise of the hoax by creating a narrative that depicts Lovecraft and Barlow’s friendship, from Barlow’s life as a teenager writing letters to Lovecraft to his time in Mexico as a teacher and anthropologist after Lovecraft’s death. The hoaxes continue — multiple characters in the novel invent stories, sometimes about Lovecraft and Barlow, which a character set in present time investigates, LaFarge said.
“Writing about hoaxes and deception … is actually a fairly straightforward mode of realism,” he added, comparing hoaxes to modern habits of creating a persona behind a keyboard or the popularity of staged “reality” television shows.
In creating this hoax, LaFarge has conducted extensive research. He spent a year at the New York Public Library and the John Hay Library reviewing Lovecraft and Barlow’s letters and other writings, he said.
“The Night Ocean” was structurally modeled after one of Lovecraft’s novels, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” LaFarge said. “I tried to represent (the characters) in a way that doesn’t feel novelistic, but instead, in a way that feels natural,” he added. “I did this to give the reader a feeling of possession and show the way one person’s story can pass onto another person who can take it over.”
William Hicks GS and Carolyn Bergonzo GS, both studying literary arts, found the way LaFarge conducted his research fascinating. “I’m a fan of how research is used in creative writing, how the writer gets intrigued by stories and how the stories are transported into their own,” Bergonzo said.
LaFarge is in the process of revising his draft of “The Night Ocean,” and the novel is expected to be on shelves in 2017.