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Monday, August 28, 2017

NEW NOVEL: Victor Lavalle's "The Changeling"

Author:   Victor LaValle
Title:  The Changeling 
Genre:  Dark Fairy Tale/Fantasy
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (an imprint of Random House) 
Publication Date: 6/13/2017

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                          
    When Apollo Kagwa’s father disappeared, all he left his son were strange recurring dreams and a box of books stamped with the word IMPROBABILIA. Now Apollo is a father himself—and as he and his wife, Emma, are settling into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Apollo’s old dreams return and Emma begins acting odd. Irritable and disconnected from their new baby boy, at first Emma seems to be exhibiting signs of postpartum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go even deeper. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

     Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood, to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest, which begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts, takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever.

    This captivating retelling of a classic fairy tale imaginatively explores parental obsession, spousal love, and the secrets that make strangers out of the people we love the most. It’s a thrilling and emotionally devastating journey through the gruesome legacies that threaten to devour us and the homely, messy magic that saves us, if we’re lucky. 

                         MY REVIEW                          
     There is so much I love about this book, but I don't want to spoil the reading experience for you by revealing too much, so if this review seems a bit disjointed, it's because I wanted to point out the best bits without including spoilers.

     In the preface to an LA Times interview with the author, Nichole Perkins summarizes the plot of The Changeling, as "a horrifying fairy tale about the maze of parenthood, shrouded by the shadows of our own upbringing. The award-winning author blends literary allusions, horror and social commentary to create a riveting piece of work that will have readers examining their own views about parenthood while worrying if they’ll ever sleep again.”

     Although the title of LaValle's novel takes its name from the changelings of ancient folk and fairy tales, the story itself is a changeling of a different sort, beginning as a family saga set in the reality of 21st century New York City—specifically, Queens—and then slipping into a horrific, dark world of betrayal and abandonment, drowning and burning, and—eventually—monsters and witches and things that go bump in the night. So...don't be deceived by the early chapters that lay out Apollo's family history like an summary of a typical American immigration experience. If you read carefully, you'll recognize the dark seeds that LaValle has planted throughout the story—seeds that will sprout and blossom and then, just as quickly, wither and die.

     LaValle divides the 103 short chapters into eight sections, the titles of which give you an outline of its early lightness followed by its delirious descent into madness and horror. The first three sections (30 chapters) introduce Apollo; Lillian, his mother; Brian, his long-absent father; Emma, his wife; Brian, their baby; and Patrice, Apollo's best friend and fellow book seller.  Those titles are: 1. "First Comes Love"; 2. "Then Comes Marriage"; 3. "Then Comes Baby in a Baby Carriage." But then, we come to Section 4, (which, here, includes a lot of dashes to mask the profanity): "Sh-t, D-mn, Motherf----r," and you know immediately that this family's story has jack-knifed into a very dark and scary place.

     The Changeling is a cautionary tale for modern parents who deluge their Facebook and Instagram accounts with dozens of pictures of their beautiful, talented children doing all sorts of cute things. The lesson to be learned about social media is verbalized by one of the villains in this story when he warns Apollo, "There are no secrets anymore. Vampires can't come into your house unless you invite them. Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can enter." Apollo certainly opens that door, snapping photo after photo of Brian, sending them to Emma, and sharing them with friends and family on social media. But then Emma begins to receive photos of Brian that don't come from Apollo, and when she pulls out her phone to show him, the photos are always gone—as if they were never there. Apollo tells Emma that she is overtired and is just imagining things, but she is certain that those pictures were there. If Apollo is right, is Emma suffering from fatigue and postpartum depression? If Emma is right, then who is spying on them? And why? By this point, I was riveted to the page, dying to know what was going on and what would happen next. That feeling never left me. In fact, it was almost impossible for me to put the book down, even for a moment.

     Along with the social media warning flags, LaValle stirs in elements of an old fairy tale—not a Disney fairy princess story, but a dark, violent, scary story with roots in the original 19th century Grimm Brothers' tales that were meant not to entertain children but to frighten them into behaving properly. If you have never read any of those unsanitized original fairy tales, you can click HERE for more background on the changeling legend in folklore. You can also find a more modern version in Maurice Sendak's book entitled Outside Over There, which features prominently in Apollo's childhood because it was the book that his father read to him over and over again before he disappeared. Apollo still knows the book by heart and flashes back to it many times during the darkest parts of the novel. This part of the story, of course, plays on the ultimate fear of all parents: the fear of losing their child. At the core of the story is the need of parents everywhere to be good parents, to do the right thing, and to protect their child at all cost. 

     One of the ongoing themes of the novel is the lies people tell themselves in order to justify their own behavior. At one point, Apollo muses about a time when he was impatient with and cruel to Emma. "[H]ow had he justified it to himself? He was trying to focus on Brian to be the kind of father he'd never had. What lengths will people stretch to believe they're still good?" Many of the people in the book, including Apollo's own mother, keep secrets and tell lies because they believe that they are doing the right thing, only to realize the damage that such secrets and beliefs cause in other's lives. They tell themselves that they are good people while committing unforgivable emotional and physical acts against their loved ones.

     Another theme running through the story relates to living happily ever after—that HEA ending of modern fairy tales (and all paranormal romances)—which we all wish for ourselves and our loved ones. But Apollo learns early that although periods of happiness are certainly possible, it's the "ever after" that is the problem. Early on, Apollo finds a rare, signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird at an estate sale and happily dreams of how the money he will receive for it will change the lives of his young son and his beautiful wife. But he soon learns that the particular happiness of that moment will never happen. As events in Apollo's life take him into dark, violent places, he learns that happiness must be taken as it comes and that there is no guarantee that it will even last the day, much less for ever after. 

     LaValle uses Harper Lee's opposing portrayals of Atticus Finch (in Mockingbird and in Go Set a Watchman) to reinforce the duality of most people's personalities and the masks they use to put their "good" side forward. In signing the rare Mockingbird first edition, Lee has written "Here is the daddy of our dreams," as if she knew very well that her readers would prefer the perfect Atticus—the dream daddy—in Mockingbird over the racist version of the same man in Watchman. In an interview, LaValle states, "It’s interesting to me, as I became a father and in thinking about my own missing father, to understand how much power we give to the idea of the father and how much many people need to believe in the idea of a good and beneficent father." 

     There are times in the later chapters when it seems almost certain that Apollo will never have another moment of true happiness, but as dark as Apollo's situation becomes, LaValle—masterful writer that he is—slips in unexpected jolts of dark, dry humor. In a scene between Apollo and the most evil man in the book, the old man—a Scandinavian immigrant—riffs on the HEA ending. "Do you know how much harm 'happily ever after' has done to mankind? I wish they said something else at the end of those stories instead. 'They tried to be happy.' Or "Eternal happiness is a fruitless pursuit.' What do you think?" Apollo stares at him and deadpans, "You're definitely Norwegian." I laughed out loud at that line, but maybe you have to be a Garrison Keillor fan to really appreciate the dry humor in Apollo's succinct, poker-faced response. 

     One of the joys of the story is the way LaValle portrays Apollo's relationships with his mother, his wife, and his best friend, Patrice—a computer whiz and military vet with PTSD. Early in his life, Apollo started his own used book business selling the worn and well-used books and magazines that his mother begged from various businesses in order to feed his reading habit. By the time he meets Patrice at an estate sale, Apollo, though young, is a veteran in the used book business. He and Patrice become fast friends and their easy back-and-forth dialogue is so natural and real that I wished I could run into them at an estate sale and have a conversation with them about books and life. 

     New York City becomes a major player as Apollo takes off on his quest for the truth about his father, his wife, and his son. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, LaValle explains, “New York City is incredibly well-known, but I still think people don’t know all of these tiny, little weird [places] we have. That kind of magic is here, but it’s far from where people actually want to go to. ... There are hidden islands in the East River … And without giving too much away, there’s actually a really big forest in the middle of New York, not in Manhattan, but it’s an enormous piece of land that could hide some profound, magical secrets. It’s a real place in Queens, my hometown.” (Oddly enough, a few years ago, I read an urban fantasy novel that included a major battle scene that took place on the same East River island that features in The Changeling. I wish I could tell you the title, but it's lost somewhere in my subconscious. Perhaps one of my readers can jog my memory.)

    Lavalle’s observations about race are stinging and humorous at the same time. In a prime example, when he gets stopped by the police shortly after arriving in a white section of Queens, Apollo, who is black, looks impassively at them and says, “That was fast.” (LaValle goes on to use what Apollo receives during that police stop to solve a plot issue a few chapters later, and it all flows along quite naturally.) And here's another example: In an early scene, Apollo convinces a group of black teenagers to block the windows of a stalled subway car in which Emma is giving birth to Brian (on the floor). Luckily, the kids do their job so well that the TV stations have no birth video to show on the 11:00 news. The only cellphone footage available "showed four black kids waving and smiling and looking gleeful, and generally speaking news outlets don't find that sort of thing worth sharing."

     LaValle's imagery is a source of immense satisfaction. My favorite comes when Apollo steps into a brown, shag-carpeted room and feels like he is "inside a Wookiee’s armpit.” In a more violent image, Apollo wakes up to find himself attached to a hot steam pipe with a bike lock. When he pulls his head forward, "the back of his exposed neck touched the steam pipe like a pork cutlet pressed against a hot skillet. He hissed, the same sound as frying meat..." That scene is so real that I felt as if I were a horrified, helpless bystander.

     I highly recommend this novel for the many reasons I have discussed above, particularly its magnificent imagery, beautifully drawn characters, compelling plot, and electrifying suspense. LaValle has created a fresh and inventive hybrid—a mash-up of fairy tales, horror elements, social commentary, and the literalization of myth (in this case, Internet trolls vs. folktale trolls). Although this is the first of LaValle's books that I have read, I now plan to dip into his previous novels and novellas for more of his vibrant, exciting fiction. 

     Here are links to four excellent reviews of The Changeling. I include them so that you can appreciate the wide diversity in the reviewers' perceptions of LaValle's work. Just click on the pink-link titles below to go to the reviews:

> "The Changeling Is Itself, a Changeling of a Book," by Amal el-Mohtar in The Atlantic (6/17/2017).

> "This New York Love Story Subverts Its 'Happily Ever After'," by Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times (7/17/207).

> "In 'The Changeling,' the Dark Fears of Parents, Memorably Etched," by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times (6/20/2017).

> "LaValle's 'The Changeling': A Creepily Good Modern Fairy Tale," by Brian Truitt in USA Today (6/13/2017).

                         ABOUT THE AUTHOR                          
Here is LaValle's biography from his official web site: 

Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, four novels, The EcstaticBig MachineThe Devil in Silver, and The Changeling and two novellas, "Lucretia and the Kroons" and "The Ballad of Black Tom." He is also the creator and writer of a comic book Victor LaValle's DESTROYER.

He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.

He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and kids. He teaches at Columbia University

     Click HERE to go to LaValle's Wikipedia page. Click HERE to read an essay entitled "Finding the Emotional Truth in Horror Writing" that LaValle wrote for The Atlantic (6/13/2017). Click HERE to listen to and read excerpts from an interview LaValle did with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air back in 2012. (Click on the white arrow in the blue circle at top left to access the audio.) 

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