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In Victor LaValle's "The Changeling," a Fairy Tale Gets Hard-Boiled

by Carol Cooper

The Changeling
By Victor LaValle
Spiegel & Grau, 448 pp.

Historically speaking, this has always been a mad, mad world, but the 21st century reveals the hallucinatory essence of each day's "new normal" more vividly than even visionaries like Guy Debord or William Gibson could have predicted. Today's global societies are not only multilingual and multicultural, but multi-perceptual as well. To accurately reflect this truth in fiction, writers must become so sensitive to pluralistic points of view that their storytelling speaks of, for, and to multiple perspectives at once. Because speculative genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction specialize in exploring unusual perspectives via myth and metaphor, the literature of "what if" is potentially more useful to any truly ambitious author than the starchy literature of "what is."

Victor LaValle's fourth novel, The Changeling, is a supernatural horror tale as subtle as a slipstream. Although more than capable of crafting what some genre writers puckishly term "mundane fiction," LaValle knows that contemporary reality cannot always be adequately described by realistic literary fiction. A closer look at his body of work reveals autobiographical obsessions and pet themes that he continues to develop from novel to novel. Both 2009's Big Machine and The Changeling center on the idea that people must periodically question what they believe and why. Convictions about religion, racial stereotypes, even child-rearing techniques become particularly suspect in LaValle's cosmology. Like Stephen King, he locates mystery and sinister threat in ubiquitous, commonplace things. Self-righteous certainty is the secret enemy, the very first dragon his protagonists must slay.

Formerly an obese college senior and a self-described "weird black kid," LaValle appears to have overcome all potential obstacles to self-esteem through writing. Of course, winning multiple book awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a teaching position within the same Columbia MFA program he graduated from didn't hurt either. Call it "better living through fiction." Now svelte, 45, and married with two young children by fellow author-academic Emily Raboteau, this Queens-bred son of an African-immigrant mother and, in his words, a "white guy from upstate New York," has been a full-time Columbia professor since 2010, and is recognized as a significant new voice in American fiction.

LaValle's evolving mythos is one in which monsters inhabit social media and state mental hospitals, while unlikely heroes emerge from dysfunctional families, drug dens, asylums, and libraries. Unquestioned assumptions and prejudices become the root of all evil in -- and the generator of plot development for -- many of LaValle's stories. He trusts his readers to extrapolate, from his characters' varying degrees of blind belief, complacency, and paranoia, why people should probably abandon all received wisdom and learn to think things through for themselves. To underscore this point, The Changeling borrows a lyric from Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" for its epigraph: "When you believe in things you don't understand then you suffer."

Though it's a weighty tome, clocking in at 448 pages, this wasn't the only important project LaValle completed in the summer of 2015. He'd just finished his edits on The Changeling but, discovering that he "still had fuel in the tank," found himself compelled to revisit favorite horror writers from his youth -- King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft -- which inspired 2016's Hugo- and Nebula Award-nominated novella, The Ballad of Black Tom.

"I'd been checking out some of Lovecraft's stories when I came across "The Horror at Red Hook,'" LaValle explains. "It's not a good story and it's terribly racist. At that same time, the police forces of the United States were murdering many unarmed black people. This news became a regular occurrence that year, and filled me with rage and pain. I thought I might channel that rage into a story . . , one that expressly wrestled with that lousy story by Lovecraft."

The result was a note-perfect period piece about Jazz Age New York intended to subvert the racial bigotry embedded in Lovecraftian tales of cosmic horror. Like The Changeling, Black Tom explores fraught relationships between fathers and sons. But both books also revolve around a conceptual struggle, between a Garveyite racial pride and Lovecraft's brand of racial paranoia, that continues to shape what it means to be nonwhite in America.

The Changeling begins as a Chandler-esque murder mystery and ends as a picaresque journey through the more terrifying stages of marriage and parenthood. Weaving anger, irony, and compassion through every plot point, LaValle laces his gargantuan epic tighter than a waist-training corset. It's not perfect: There are minor narrative inconsistencies and implausibilities throughout. But improbable scenarios go with the territory of horror fiction. Character profiles are drawn in broad strokes that then get destabilized just enough for readers to question a protagonist's honesty, if not their sanity. But the signature triumph of The Changeling is not how it explodes idealistic myths about love and intimacy so much as how it indicts social media as a high-tech vector for social pathologies. Facebook and Instagram are the most insidious villains of all because people's compulsive, voluntary posting makes us complicit in eroding our own privacy and safety. Indeed, it takes all of LaValle's language skills and psychological insight to make his readers properly fear our smartphones and the cannibalistic, post-privacy gestalt they encourage.

Published in: Village Voice, August 4, 2017

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