The Night Ocean, Paul la Farge
I went to Salt Lake City for the weekend to see my pregnant friend before she gives birth and I lose her again for another couple of years. I bought The Night Ocean, which is a novel about stories about HP Lovecraft, as a treat to read on the plane, even though it’s by a man and I have four hundred million unread books at home, but you know how it is. One needs a book for the plane; one’s books already at home won’t do. If you stay in the parts of Salt Lake City I stayed in it is easy to come away with the impression that Salt Lake City is populated exclusively by twenty-five-year-old white people with magnificent teeth. What happens when you turn thirty, do they euthanize you, I said, and my friend said No, you have to move to a different part of town. Everyone is very sweet in Salt Lake City, in a pastel earnest way that made me anxious, and the hip young men all have those beard-and-tattoo sets that make it impossible to tell if they’re just hip or actually Nazis. I bought long underwear at the REI and also a water bottle, because I hadn’t been thinking the morning I left and forgot to empty the water bottle I’d brought, and the TSA lady threw it out in front of me, and the cashier at the REI knocked over the water bottle I was buying and said Oh my god oh my god I’m so sorry, and I said What the fuck we’re leaving, and a look of abject terror flashed across his face before he realized I was joking and I felt terrible. Against the world, against life, that’s me and HP, fucking monsters.
My friend and I went up a mountain—they’re right there, the mountains! it's marvelous!—and the air was clean and thin and everything got a little blue around the edges, and we passed through groves of aspen, and there was snow on the ground, and you could see forever across the wild hills, and I thought about the time long ago now when I was a person who routinely went up and down mountains, and how nice it is on the side of a mountain, how most everything else just falls away. What the fuck were you thinking, I said, because we’ve known each other for a long time and that’s the question I want to ask everyone having children right now. I know, she said ruefully. Biology. I told her about seeing a different friend, one I hadn’t seen in almost fifteen years, who also has young children, and how he asked me How long do you think we have?—this is a question I get a lot lately, probably because I’ve been a Cassandra of the apocalypse since, like, 1998—I think we have a hundred years, right? and I said without thinking, Ten if we’re lucky, and then I remembered the pictures of his baby that I have seen online, and said, No, you’re right, probably a hundred.
I brought my computer to Utah to do some work but I didn’t do any of the work or look at any of the news; instead I read in the mornings, until the last morning, when I looked at the news again and thought How are we supposed to keep going through this, but then again I think that most mornings, and here we are. Are you writing? my friend asked, and I said Not really, and then I said the truth, which is that I drink a lot so that most of the time I am muzzy and vague and I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m pretty sure I have nothing important left to say. We went out to breakfast one morning and parked up next to the van of a lady I follow on Instagram; this lady lives in her van with her husband and two dogs, and goes about in the mountains and has adventures and so on. Hi Bucket, hi Dagwood! I said to the dogs, which were in the van, barking excitedly, and then I explained to my friend, who does not have Instagram, about the van lady, and my friend said, confused, So she’s homeless? and I said No, it’s like a whole thing, for young white people, there’s usually a lot of soft focus lighting and prayer flags, I like this particular van lady because her van is often dirty and she posts a lot of pictures of canyons, and then the van lady came out of the restaurant and said I’m sorry they’re barking, they’re actually friendly, and I said I know! I follow them on Instagram. Something like six hundred thousand people follow her on Instagram, I’m sure she gets that a lot.
The Night Ocean is sad and sweet and funny and lovely and I read it in the mornings, drinking my coffee in the cool still Airbnb, which had trees outside every window so that the light coming in filtered green-gold and I felt as though I were sitting in a radiant bower, an elf-princess with her novel, not looking at the news or the email or the van lady on Instagram or the inside of her own head. Do you like HP Lovecraft? It’s fine if you don’t, he wasn’t a particularly nice person, but it helps to have some kind of relationship with him if you want to read The Night Ocean, although I think you would like it even if you don't. The Airbnb had all sorts of channels and my friend came over and we watched The Real Housewives of somewhere—California, I think?—and one of the housewives was ill and didn’t put on any of her makeup to go to a dinner party, and one of the other housewives’ husbands told her she looked pretty, and after the makeup-less housewife left everyone talked about how hideously ugly she was, and the husband said Well she looked so bad I figured no one would tell her she was attractive, so I did to be nice, and I’m still laughing about it. What a gallant housewife’s husband! On the airplane a flight attendant called me Sir and then was horrifically apologetic and I said It’s okay, I wouldn’t look like this if I cared, and he hid from me the rest of the flight. Poor guy.
I brought my Arctic book because I’m going to the Arctic next month—I know!—and then I didn’t read it, because I just got to the chapter about colonization and needed a break, but I’ve been reading it on the train in New York and it is very good at evoking sweeping vistas. Also I have been watching Fortitude, which is not, I don’t think, a very realistic depiction of daily life in Longyearben. If it is in fact realistic I shall be lucky to escape the Arctic with my life and intestines. I am very close to buying a van and several dogs and running away from the entire future and my entire life but despite temptation I got on the plane home. I had dinner the night before I left with my friend and her husband—it’s still hard for me to say that, she’s not really a husband-having sort of person, but at least he’s nice—and her son Leo, who is almost two. Leo and I talked about the landscaping. On my way to the airport the next morning I got a text from my friend: Leo woke up this morning and said Where’s Sarah and then he said It’s time to go to New York. And then this morning on the train I thought, Maybe I do have something to say after all, something small. Baby steps. Maybe even now, even in this time, it doesn’t always have to be important; maybe just a story is a good enough place to start.