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Books
by James Sallis

The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge, Penguin Press, 2017, $27, hc.

Temporary People, by Deepak Unnikrishnan, Restless Books, 2017, $17.99, tpb.

 

What many of us do as writers is write ourselves into other lives that are partly real, partly imaginary, forever blurring the line; this is the coin Paul La Farge banks for the 385 pages of The Night Ocean.

First, full disclosure: The novel is not fantasy or science fiction nor is it, for all its probing at horror stories and those who create them, arealist fiction at all. It does, however, have one leg securely over the barricade, pushing hard at questions of identity, myth, the place of stories in our lives. And built as it is about Lovecraft, weird fiction, and fandom, with walk-ons from such as Don Wollheim, Isaac Asimov, William Burroughs, Cyril Kornbluth, and the Futurists, this many-layered, many-legged novel holds considerable interest to dedicated readers of imaginative fiction.

Previous recombinant novels from La Farge peer out from behind this one. Set in a city of disappearances, The Artist of the Missing gave us Frank, painting portraits of those who disappear, among them Frank's parents, his brother, and his friend Prudence, a police photographer employed to photograph corpses. Two, Haussmann; Or, The Distinction and The Facts of Winter present themselves as penned by obscure French poet Paul Poissel and merely translated by La Farge. The first purports to be the personal history of the man who city-planned modern Paris, the second a collection of the dreams of various people around Paris during the Third Republic. Paul Poissel is of course imaginary.

This novel's Charlie Willett, developing an interest in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, pursues that interest into obsession. Soon, as he clutches at every gnarled bit or frayed end of information and innuendo—maybe this is the thing that will hold him up, maybe this will save him—he settles on the story of Robert Barlow, a teenage fan with whom Lovecraft, venturing far from his Providence home and the safety of his reclusive nature, spent two lengthy visits. Common belief is that Barlow committed suicide. Charlie believes the death was faked.

The Night Ocean begins with Charlie's disappearance from a mental hospital after becoming wildly successful for his book on the Lovecraft-Barlow story, then suffering censure and spite when much that he wrote turns out to be false. The quiet voice in our ear is that of Charlie's psychotherapist wife Marina, who becomes our guide to this particular inferno as she follows the lurches and turns of Charlie's research, fitting her own feet in her husband's tracks, trying to understand.

 

My husband, Charlie Willett, disappeared from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires on January 7, 2012. I say disappeared because I don't believe he's dead, although that would be a reasonable conclusion. Charlie's army jacket, jeans, shoes, socks, and underwear (though, strangely, not his shirt) were all found at the edge of Agawam Lake the day after he left the hospital. The police say Charlie's footprints led to the edge of the lake, and nobody's footprints led away.

 

At the center of Charlie's account was the Erotonomicon, purported to be an intimate diary of Lovecraft's life and quoted extensively in the subsequent section. Reading it, Marina remarks,

 

I diagnosed psychosis; Charlie heard the true voice of the white American soul.

 

Further, the Erotonomicon, awash in racism and coded homosexual activities ("did Yogge-Sothothe in my room," "did Ablo again," "Outer Spheres"), is a fake, a faux narrative not wholly unlike Charlie's own and written by one L. C. Spinks—which affords some idea how complexly the surfaces of La Farge's novel shimmer and dive within one another. Nor is Robert Barlow, the Barlow whom Charlie supposedly unearths and interviews, real. This is a novel in which everything is another thing. No "reasonable conclusions" here. Or too many.

Following Marina's brief preface, precisely as she begins to track Charlie's obsession, so do we as readers follow after hers: reading Lovecraft stories and those co-written with Barlow; making our way through the Erotonomicon in all its straight-up racism, suppressed sexuality, and coding; rooting out the story of L. C. Spinks and the damage done to Lovecraft's reputation by publication of Spinks's book; the ongoing search for Robert Barlow, who, sixteen years old at the time of meeting Lovecraft, went on to become a poet in San Francisco, then an anthropologist in Mexico; finally, the interview with a self-proclaimed Barlow, which for a time answered all Charlie's questions.

The novel shares its structure and initial section titles with Lovecraft's posthumously published The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and its tale of a young man in Providence who becomes obsessed with one of his ancestors. This novel begins, as does La Farge's, with a disappearance from a psychiatric hospital; even the name Willett is borrowed therefrom. Case is "a novel about people who become obsessed with, even possessed by, other people's stories," La Farge remarked in an interview with Matt Staggs for the website Unbound Worlds. "So it seemed fitting that my novel be possessed by another novel's structure."

 

I do hope that fans of imaginative literature will take a look at The Night Ocean.… My goal in writing the novel was to tell a Lovecraftian story—with Lovecraft as a character, no less—without using any of the props of the Lovecraftian universe: the tentacles, the lost cities, the crypts, the cultists…. I wanted to create an atmosphere of horror and mystery within the limits of the ordinary world, which is horrible enough, and mysterious enough, too.

 

Along with pivots and pirouettes off the structure of Case, another great resonance here is to the Lovecraft-Barlow tale that shares La Farge's title. In this short story, an artist, retreating to a cabin near the sea "to rest a weary mind" after concentrated work on a mural, sees strange figures on the beach in the rain. When he gestures to them, they fail to respond and vanish back into the waves. What are these? he thinks. What could they want? Later he sees another figure swimming "with horrible ease" and carrying something—a man?—on its shoulder. This figure, too, or creature, disappears into the ocean. Out there in the deep, the artist comes to believe, there is "some strange and palpitant life," a life that, for all his observations, for all his imaginings, will forever remain a terrible mystery. For his own ending, La Farge sets that story's ending on its head. Marina, swimming farther and farther out to sea, looks back to see "someone on the beach, waving his arms, shouting in a familiar voice, calling my name."

Of all the material it works and reworks and bends to shape (even the McCarthy hearings briefly cross stage), The Night Ocean is finally a cautionary tale, insistent upon how important stories are to our existence yet at the same time warning how all too easily we can become infected by the stories of others: that we can lose our lives in trying to fit ourselves to those stories, or them to us.

 

Anna Varghese worked in Abu Dhabi. She taped people. Specifically, she taped construction workers who fell from incomplete buildings.

Anna, working the night shift, found these injured men, then put them back together with duct tape or some good glue, or if stitches were required, patched them up with needle and horse hair, before sending them on their way.

Anna belonged to a crew of ten, led by Khalid, a burly man from Nablus. Khalid's team covered Hamdan Street, Electra, Salaam, and Khalifa. They used bicycles; they biked quickly.

 

That, preceeded by the brief fable of three labor camp workers who flee exploitation by becoming what they eat (a passport, a suitcase, an airplane), is the second of twenty-eight linked stories from Temporary People, a wild, often beautiful, ever challenging improvisation that keeps reaching for rafters and floorboards yet never loses touch with its core tune: the fate and lives of foreign workers in the United Arab Emirates. "[F]oreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population," the author, who grew up in Abu Dhabi, the son of migrant Indian workers, writes in his preface. "It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave."

In "Glossary," a young man's tongue escapes his mouth, losing words with each step it takes: "Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs died at the scene but the surviving nouns, tadpole-sized, see-through, fell like hail." After this the boy refuses to open his mouth to speak, afraid his teeth will follow his tongue's example and abandon him "like a defecting army, emptying his mouth of everything worthy."

The story immediately following upon that might be summarized as Boy vs. The General, the latter being a cockroach, outcast and marginalized even by his own kind.

 

Boy had grown up with the critters. He knew their habits and could talk about them as though he used to be one himself or shared a certain bond with them, the way fishermen talk about currents or cellists straddle their cellos.

 

The General has concocted, of individual words and bits of language learned from his building's radical mix of inhabitants—Palestinians, Sudanese, Filipinos, Indians—his own mixed patois, which he practices at night in Boy's kitchen, wearing little shorts, a hat, and a military jacket, walking upright on two legs.

In another story a man rushing to see his dying father back home is detained by airport security.

 

I ask for access to my screwdriver, and then request help to be taken apart. So I am dismantled. My brain pulled out, my blood poured into buckets, my limbs put in a tub, alongside my organs. My skin is then hung on a coat rack and my bones collected in trash bags.

 

In the same story, when the man states to authorities "My name is—," a black square takes the place of his name, then the names of all his relatives: He has been, as a person, redacted.

Altogether a strange world indeed, that called to life here by Deepak Unnikrishnan. Kentucky Fried Chicken shops stand next door to buildings with elevators that require the sexual favors of children; examiners climb inside people and decide to remain there; at a play's intermission, "miracle salve" is applied to the player who during Act One was beaten, had his legs broken and sand poured into his eyes, and who in Act Two will repeatedly be set on fire.

A strange book as well—challenging, as I remarked earlier, and sometimes exhausting. A book that bites down on the bouleversé lives of foreign workers in the UAE and will not let go, doing the voices, running the changes, riffing off dirty dozens. A book, perhaps, for all of us who walk with fear and incomprehension this world of others, who feel we do not belong. As who, finally, does not?

Like those fallen, lying alone and unable to move, waiting for Anna to come and put them back together. Or the General, shunned by fellow cockroaches, taking up piecemeal the language and dreams of others. Like Charlie, drowning himself in another's life. Like Marina, finally understanding how little we can ever know of others, swimming ever farther out to sea.

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