Credit Teddy Wolff
By Victor LaValle
431 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.
“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 stabilized, 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.
Credit James Nieves/The New York Times
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.
Source: New York Times