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March 8, 2017

Book Notes - Paul La Farge "The Night Ocean"

The Night Ocean

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Paul La Farge's The Night Ocean is an engrossing novel inspired by the life of H. P. Lovecraft.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"A beauty of a tale...A book full of pleasures...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."


In his own words, here is Paul La Farge's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Night Ocean:



The Night Ocean is a novel about the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and his friendship with a young fan named Robert H. Barlow, who went on to become a poet and a brilliant anthropologist and scholar of Aztec civilization. I wrote the book in upstate New York and New Hampshire and at a monastery on the banks of the Hudson River. I listen to music when I write, but I mostly don’t remember it afterward — it’s as if the music gets totally used up in my memory by the writing itself. Still, here are some songs that feel related to my book in one way and another. I wouldn’t recommend listening to them back to back: that way lies auditory madness.

The Mountain Goats, "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" (2008)

Heretic Pride came out after I abandoned an early version of The Night Ocean, and before I wrote the version that ended up sticking. I love the song but I felt ambivalent about its reference to Lovecraft, who did, in fact, live in Brooklyn for two years. They were without a doubt the two least happy years of his not-exceedingly-happy life, and if you read the letters he wrote to his aunt in Providence, he’s so full of despair and hatred for New York City that he sounds like he’s completely lost his mind. I worried that the Mountain Goats’ song would make my book unnecessary, because everyone would listen to it and know the story of Lovecraft in Brooklyn, and there would be nothing left for me to tell. It was a ridiculous fear. The song doesn’t even tell the story of Lovecraft’s time in Brooklyn.

Gilbert & Sullivan, "In Enterprise of Martial Kind" (1889)

You wouldn’t necessarily guess it, but H.P. Lovecraft, whose creations include octopus-headed Cthulhu, the fishlike Deep Ones, and the fearsome, protoplasmic Shoggoths, liked light opera. In The Night Ocean, I have him sing "In an Enterprise of Martial Kind," from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, with Robert Barlow’s father. I don’t know if Lovecraft ever really sang that song, but it fit the mood of the scene: Barlow’s father was a paranoid schizophrenic who’d retired from the Army to live with his family in Central Florida, and the song is about the Duke of Plaza-Toro, who runs away from battle whenever he can. It also happens that I saw a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan as a kid — although never The Gondoliers. I was even in a middle school production of HMS Pinafore, which was so bad that my parents walked out halfway through.

William S. Burroughs, "William's Welcome (What Are You Here For?)" (1990)

I got the Dead City Radio CD in 1990, as a Christmas gift from my folks. I’d read Naked Lunch by then, but I’d never heard Burroughs’s voice, that raspy singsong. I listened to this track over and over — it was, for better or worse, also my introduction to Sonic Youth — and tried to feel the deep implications of the line, "We’re here to go." I suppose the question is still open, but I came back to Dead City Radio for a different reason when I was writing The Night Ocean: William S. Burroughs is one of my characters, and, as you might expect, he does a lot of talking. I tried to pick up the rhythm of his storytelling from the album, the kind of crazed, jaded wonder in his voice.

The Holy Modal Rounders, "Euphoria" (1964)

The Night Ocean isn’t entirely about Lovecraft and Barlow and Burroughs; there’s also a present-day love story, about the psychiatrist Marina Willett (who narrates most of the book) and her husband Charlie, a freelance journalist. At one point early in the book, Charlie tries to explain the Holy Modal Rounders to Marina: they were a psychedelic folk-music duo in the 1960s and 70s, who teamed up briefly with the Fugs. Marina isn’t a fan. But Charlie is — he likes strange things, esoteric things.

I chose the Holy Modal Rounders for that moment in the novel because they’re as esoteric a group as you’re likely to find; but also because I met Peter Stampfel, who is half of the duo. He’s married to the science-fiction editor Betsy Wollheim, who is the daughter of the science-fiction editor Donald Wollheim, who is a character in The Night Ocean. Donald was friends with Lovecraft; they exchanged letters, and some of Lovecraft’s letters ended up in Betsy’s apartment in lower Manhattan. They’d never been published and I was eager to read them, so I nagged Betsy until she let me come over and take a look at them. I ended up spending a few hours in her apartment, transcribing the Lovecraft letters, and meanwhile Peter Stampfel was walking around in (as I remember the scene) a bathrobe. I had no idea who he was, except that he collected milk-bottle tops. But just as I was leaving the apartment, he gave me a Holy Modal Rounders CD, and I felt like an idiot for not having figured it out sooner.

Meghan Trainor, "No" (2016)

This song doesn’t appear in The Night Ocean. But I did play it at a dance party at Ledig House, a writers’ residency in upstate New York, where I did the final edits on the book. It turns out that there are a lot of dance parties, relatively speaking, at artists’ colonies. Probably people need to jump around after spending the whole day in their studios. Anyway, no one else wanted to be the DJ, so I volunteered, and I put this on because I’d been listening to it a lot, and I like it. And people danced. I’m also including it on this playlist because there should be at least one danceable song in the mix.


Paul La Farge and The Night Ocean links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

BookPage review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

Publishers Weekly profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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