The char­ac­ters in Vic­tor Lavalle’s novel pay an aw­fully steep price for a fleet­ing sense of safety

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES - Ter­rence Raf­ferty

The hero is like a knight on a melan­choly, half-crazed quest, roam­ing the ‘spec­tral ter­ri­to­ries.’

“I think I hate those fairy tales,” an evil old man de­clares in Vic­tor LaValle’s strange and won­der­ful new novel, The

Changeling. "Not re­ally the tales, but how they end. Three words that ruin ev­ery­thing. ‘ Hap­pily ever af­ter.'” Ev­ery­body’s a critic, espe­cially in New York City, where this bit­ter man lives and where vir­tu­ally the en­tirety of LaValle’s story - which is a fairy tale - takes place. (The ur­ban ac­tion is in­ter­rupted only by a cou­ple of ner­vous for­ays into the terra incog­nita of Nas­sau County.) In New York, its na­tives know, there’s no such thing as “ever af­ter”: Ev­ery­thing changes, all the time, and the best we can do is plant our feet and hold on tight, straphang­ers on the hurtling ex­press train of fate. The three words (spoiler alert) are in fact ut­tered on the last page of

The Changeling, but LaValle re­vises them as soon as they’ve been spo­ken. He’s a New Yorker, Queens-raised. He gets that hap­pi­ness isn’t some­where you live for­ever; it’s an apart­ment whose rent isn’t sta­bilised, much less con­trolled.

The Changeling, it should be noted, is a par­tic­u­lar kind of fairy tale: “The old kind,” in the words of the om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor, “when such sto­ries were meant for adults, not kids.” Once upon a time, that is. LaValle be­gins his tale way back in 1968, in the brief Fun City era of Mayor John Lind­say, at a mo­ment that fore­shad­owed the city’s darker days of the ‘70s: A san­i­ta­tion work­ers’ strike is in progress, and the streets of all five bor­oughs are pil­ing fast with un­col­lected garbage. In this fetid at­mos­phere, two Queens res­i­dents meet: “Lil­lian Kagwa em­i­grated from Uganda,” the nar­ra­tor tells us, in a know­ing magic-re­al­ist tone, “while Brian West ar­rived from the only slightly less for­eign ter­ri­tory of Syra­cuse.” It’s love at first sight for Brian, a pa­role of­fi­cer keep­ing an eye on Lil­lian’s boss, but not for her. She’s had a rougher life; she’s warier. But Brian per­sists and is grad­u­ally, even­tu­ally re­warded. They marry and have a son, whom they name Apollo. “And they lived hap­pily ever af­ter,” the nar­ra­tor says. “At least for a few years.” Next para­graph: “By Apollo’s fourth birth­day Brian West was gone.” So that’s the kind of fairy tale this is go­ing to be.

Then, hav­ing abruptly wak­ened his au­di­ence from one hap­pily-ever-af­ter reverie, LaValle dares us to dream an­other, if we can, this time a com­ing-of-age story in which young Apollo grows up to be­come a dealer in used and rare books, finds true love in the form of a strong and comely li­brar­ian named Emma, and has a son of his own, whom they call Brian, af­ter the van­ished fa­ther. De­spite the warn­ings we’ve been given, the teller’s calm, lulling voice draws us in again, fills our child­like imag­i­na­tions with the hope that this time things will turn out dif­fer­ently. And they do: What be­falls Apollo and Emma and lit­tle Brian is much more ter­ri­ble.

The book’s ti­tle hints at the na­ture of the catas­tro­phe, but doesn’t fully con­vey the sheer force of it, the gut-punch shock LaValle de­liv­ers to his trust­ing read­ers. As his Love­craftian novella The Bal­lad of Black Tom showed just a year ago, he’s not timid ei­ther about con­jur­ing hor­rors or about de­scrib­ing the emo­tions they evoke in their un­for­tu­nate vic­tims. His hor­rors hurt, and keep hurt­ing for a good while af­ter the worst seems to be over. Apollo, in the months af­ter the ap­par­ent end of his hap­pi­ness, finds him­self re­liv­ing the dire events and run­ning around the city - mostly us­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion - in a des­per­ate at­tempt to make some sense of what’s hap­pened to him. He’s like a knight on a melan­choly, half-crazed quest, which brings him to a se­cret com­mu­nity of women on an aban­doned is­land in the East River, and from there to a ceme­tery on Long Is­land, where he feels he’s reached “the far­thest land­mark on this new map of the spec­tral ter­ri­to­ries. Ul­tima Thule of grief”.

And still there’s far­ther for him to go, deep into the wilder­ness of For­est Park in Queens, where some­thing un­canny (and dis­turbingly large) lives. Sur­vival in New York City is a chal­lenge at the best of times, for ev­ery­body, but this hero’s or­deals, by wa­ter and fire and so­cial me­dia, are sterner tri­als of faith than even the mad monks of the In­qui­si­tion could dream up. They’re worse than a garbage strike.

What Apollo Kagwa goes through in The Changeling is, de­lib­er­ately, a ver­sion of the scary ad­ven­tures that a plucky lit­tle girl named Ida has for her­self in Mau­rice Sen­dak’s great 1981 pic­ture book Out­side Over There, a copy of which the hero finds in a mys­te­ri­ous box left by his ab­sent fa­ther. “When Papa was away at sea,” Sen­dak’s dread story be­gins, in­tro­duc­ing a Grimm-like tale of a baby stolen by gob­lins and re­placed with an in­hu­man fac­sim­ile.

That’s the sort of thing that hap­pens, it seems, when Papa’s gone and Mama is, as the ex­quis­ite il­lus­tra­tions sug­gest, lost in her­self, gaga.

As Jonathan Cott’s fas­ci­nat­ing new book, There’s a Mys­tery There: The Pri­mal Vi­sion of Mau­rice Sen­dak, makes clear, Out­side Over There was an espe­cially per­sonal work for its au­thor, who took years to pro­duce it: This fairy tale ex­presses, in words and pic­tures, Sen­dak’s feel­ings about the re­mote­ness of his own par­ents dur­ing his New York child­hood, and quite a bit else be­sides. (In­clud­ing his ob­ses­sion with Mozart, whose spirit hov­ers over the fan­tas­tic pro­ceed­ings as Sen­dak’s does over The Changeling.) That’s what this sort of story is sup­posed to do. As a witch named Cal­listo tells Apollo: “A bad fairy tale has some sim­ple god­damn mo­ral. A great fairy tale tells the truth.”

In The Changeling LaValle does more than his share of truth-telling, about the anx­i­eties and am­biva­lences of mod­ern par­ent­ing, the psy­cho­log­i­cal value of the sto­ries we tell our­selves and our chil­dren, and the rig­ors of sur­vival in ur­ban Amer­ica.

Most of the char­ac­ters in his ram­bunc­tious fairy-tale epic - both good and bad, and all de­scended from im­mi­grants - pay an aw­fully steep price for a sense of safety in this coun­try, this city, or their an­ces­tors paid it, decades and cen­turies ago. “No one wants to learn their his­tory,” the evil old guy (a chill­ing vari­ant on Poe’s Man of the Crowd) tells Apollo. “Not all of it.” This novel doesn’t try to get quite all of it in, but it’s rich in the am­bigu­ous his­tory of the New World me­trop­o­lis that is its noisy, clam­orous set­ting.

W B Yeats in his youth wrote a changeling poem called The Stolen Child, whose re­frain is “For the world’s more full of weep­ing than you can un­der­stand.” In New York terms, that sen­ti­ment, which un­der­lies ev­ery­thing LaValle writes, trans­lates roughly as “The rent is too damn high.” The peo­ple of The Changeling pay and pay for their fleet­ing stretches of hap­pi­ness, weep in the mean­time, then pay again, and tell them­selves the sto­ries they need to go on.

In New York there are monsters (and he­roes) on ev­ery cor­ner, not out­side over there but right here. It’s a hell of a town.

Vic­tor Lavalle

The Changeling By Vic­tor LaValle 431 pages Price: US$28

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