In 2017, when The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge was published, I urged everyone I knew to read it.
“What is it?” many of them asked.
“A mystery,” I said.
The ones I pressed the book upon were all mystery lovers. After they read it, they complained, “It’s not a mystery. It’s literature.” Indeed, it is.
But like all true mysteries, the mystery La Farge was conjuring up was the mystery of the human heart. The novel—La Farge’s fifth—is about a woman trying to find her missing husband, who was obsessed with a group of science fiction writers in the 1950s, who in turn were obsessed with H. P. Lovecraft. It was a plot like a Matryoshka doll, one reality nesting within another reality, each containing many more dolls secreted one within the other.
La Farge takes this material and, through a unique sensibility and writing often on a level with Nabokov or Updike, creates a book that will be read by anyone still reading 100 years from now—a book that captures better than any other I know the world in which we try to negotiate day by day. A book specific to his own generation but at the same time universal.
La Farge’s work was well recognized by critics. He won many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment of the Arts Literature fellowship, two California Book Awards, and the Bard Fiction Prize. And he taught students at Wesleyan, Columbia, Bard, and Bennington, where he influenced hundreds of young writers. They recognized not just his value as a writer and mentor but his sweetness of character.
His memorial, held recently, was remarkable for its outpouring of love. As with Rilke and Kafka, Shelly and Keats—writers whose work he reflected—his tragic early passing leaves an indelible mark.
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