TITLE: The Changeling
AUTHOR: Victor LaValle
GENRE: Fiction, Horror
PUBLISHED: June 13, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
It is hard to blame people for opting out of parenthood – not least because being a parent means being in a constant state of fear. For a person with a uterus, that fear starts from the moment they find out they are pregnant, and subsequently decide to keep the foetus. Pregnancy is immensely taxing on the body, to say nothing of the financial strain it can cause. And then, provided that the baby comes into the world relatively healthy, the new parents must now ask themselves how they can keep their child not only safe, but become a healthy, happy, well-adjusted individual. These fears are further fuelled by the Internet and social media, where Facebook and celebrity endorsements inundate parents with things they are doing wrong and how this book or toy or baby carrier or whole new parenting ideology can help them raise a better, faster, stronger child (apologies to Daft Punk).
Victor LaValle’s novel The Changeling plays with all of those fears, and a few more besides. Set in New York, it tells the story of Apollo Kagwa, a rare books dealer who used to have strange nightmares about his estranged father when he was a child. Despite this, he has managed to find happiness of his own, settling down with his wife Emma, and their baby son, Brian. But when a horrific event tears his family apart, Apollo decides to get to the bottom of the matter once and for all.
The novel’s initial chapters may remind the reader of other novels that proclaim to be “modern fairytales”. For my part, I was most strongly reminded of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni – partly because of the setting, but partly, too, because of the quality of the prose. To be sure, Wecker’s style is different from LaValle’s, but the hint of enchantment and magic that lies just beneath the skin of most fairytales – modern or otherwise – is present in both The Golem and the Djinni and The Changeling.
The Changeling, however, is most patently not a fairytale in the same vein as The Golem and the Djinni. Take a look at the opening paragraph for the former:
This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike. In February New York City’s sanitation workers refused to pick up trash for eight straight days. One hundred thousand tons of garbage filled the sidewalks, spilled into the streets. Rats ran laps alongside morning joggers. Rubbish fires boiled the air. The five boroughs had been given up for dead. Still, there was some cracked magic in the air because that was when Lillian and Brian met. Each had journeyed from far-flung lands to find one another in Queens. Neither could’ve guessed the wildness that falling in love would unleash.
Despite the first sentence stating that “this [is a] fairy tale,” the setting is about as far from a fairy tale as the reader can get – more akin to a post-apocalyptic landscape than the pastoral idylls he or she might be more inclined to associate with the genre. And yet, despite this setting, the reader might be encouraged to still view this as a kind of fairy tale given the second half of the paragraph, with its references to (cracked) magic and falling in love.
The paragraph is also a very clear clue to how the rest of the novel goes. Though LaValle tells the story with a lightness and fluidity often associated with the best fairytales (modern or otherwise), there is, in fact, something much darker to this tale. It sits there, just underneath the skin of the story, waiting to come to the forefront. And LaValle is absolutely masterful at drawing that darkness out bit by bit, creating a sense of creeping horror that builds throughout the novel, creating tension and propelling the story forward even when the scenes are quieter and more introspective. It is difficult to pinpoint this tension in a handful of quotes, partly because of spoilers, but mostly because it takes actually reading the novel to understand just what kind of magic LaValle has woven into the storytelling.
Another wonderful aspect of LaValle’s writing is its humour. Since this is a horror novel (or a dark fairy tale – it depends on the reader), some readers might expect it to be deadly serious, or perhaps even grim. It is those things, yes, but in between the serious bits are many moments worth at least a chuckle.Take the following excerpt, for example:
… Nonetheless, Tonya explained, these Bradley Method classes were designed, in part, so that even the fathers could do the job of assisting with the delivery if needed. Apollo believed this, had—with a degree of arrogance—repeated all this to Patrice… But let’s be clear, Apollo Kagwa had been a staunch believer in the idea that he could deliver a baby because he was absolutely sure he would never, ever actually have to do that.
But there they were, on the stalled A train, no midwives in sight.
While the above scenario is quite funny, in its own way, the beauty about the humour in this novel is that it is always used to point out deeper thematic concerns relevant to the real world. In this excerpt, for instance, what grabbed my attention was the phrase “Bradley Method.” I looked at Wikipedia to get my bearings, but though the article defined what it was, it did not give any substantial discussion about the pros and cons of said method – indeed, the Sources section generally pointed to the method’s proponents, specifically to the AAHCC (American Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth) website. I headed over to Google to find legitimate material discussing the pros and cons of the method, and my admittedly-cursory search only brought up two academic articles – one of which was behind a paywall, and therefore inaccessible to me. But I did not get those results with a straightforward search; I had to manipulate the query in order to find what I wanted.
What I did turn up when I entered my query in a straightforward manner were posts on forums and blogs aimed specifically at pregnant people, trumpeting the Bradley Method with a vehemence and volume that would do an evangelical preacher proud. In a few of those forums, whenever someone offered up a different opinion, that responder was inevitably dogpiled by others in the forum, who insisted quite vociferously (and occasionally quite hurtfully, in my opinion) that the responder’s choice was wrong – as if said responder was making a moral choice between good and evil, instead of deciding between hospital birth or home birth.
Nowadays, most people turn to the Internet for answers. Google, after all, is easier to access, and cheaper than setting an appointment with a medical professional. For a great many people, Google could be the only source of information they have, because they have enough financial and technological means to access the Internet but do not have enough of either or both to set an appointment with a doctor. While there is (usually) nothing wrong with turning to the Internet for advice, it is more problematic when a query turns up polarising polemic that can turn making a simple decision into something approaching a moral choice. It should come as no surprise, then, that a great many pregnant people, and later on parents, feel immense anxiety over what they are doing – not least because the Internet is always there, judging every move they make and pronouncing them “good” or “bad” parents and making sure they know about it. In the excerpt, LaValle pokes fun at this tendency, but in doing so highlights it for the reader, making him or her aware of this very real issue that comes with parenting in the twenty-first century.
And speaking of parenting, if this novel is about anything in particular, it is about the highs, the lows, but above all the fears of parenting. Parents live with a special set of fears: fears that drive them to do things that can be both good and bad for their children. But for my parents, who belong to another generation, parenting might actually have been easier for them in some ways, as one character remarks:
… “I’m about ten years older than you, I think. I was one of the last waves of men who thought all you had to do was work, work, work and that made you a great dad. Provide. Provide. Provide.
“Then guys your age get a whole new data set. It’s not enough to make the money, and besides you can’t make enough to cover everything, not on your own. Your wife might want to work or she might not, but it doesn’t matter—she has to work. When I was starting out, you got by on one income, and that was enough, but these days you’ve got to be poor or rich to survive on one income. You want to stay afloat in the middle, and you both are hitting that nine to five.”
Nowadays, for people of my generation and likely younger, there is a whole other set of expectations, exacerbated by the Internet as I have already mentioned. And nothing captures that fear quite like the following quote:
New Dads are the future, or at least they plan to be, but since they’re making all this shit up as they go along, New Dads are also scared as hell.
This novel touches upon many different fears that parents have, but I think it is the above that really bothers parents the most. To be sure, they will articulate other kinds of fears, but deep down it is the fact that they “are making all this shit up as they go along” that they find most troubling. They cannot, or will not, turn to their own parents, out of fear that they will perpetuate their own parents’ mistakes; but in turning to other sources – especially the Internet – they open themselves up to making other kinds of mistakes. Their fear of making one single misstep in the raising of their child, of being unable to protect said child from any and all sources of harm – up to and including themselves – leads them to a downward spiral of even more mistakes, which breed even more fears. It is these fears, in the end, that lie at the heart this novel – that, indeed, lie at the heart of some of the oldest stories that we tell ourselves, and to our children, as another character points out:
“How do we protect our children?” ...
… “That’s what Rapunzel is about. That’s the question it’s asking.”
“… No matter what we do, the world finds its way in. So then how do we protect our children? Hundreds of years ago German peasants were asking one another this question. But rather than frame it as a question they turned it into a story that embodied the concern. How do we protect our children? It’s 2015, and we’re still trying to find an answer. The new fears are the old fears, and the old fears are ancient.”
Overall, The Changeling is one of the finest horror novels I have read in a while: the tension creeps and builds in slow increments, masked by a seemingly light fairytale shell that may lead the reader to think that this story is mostly harmless. But as the horror climbs and reaches a crescendo, LaValle reveals not only his skill as a master storyteller but also some very dark truths about the world – dark enough, perhaps, to keep more than a few readers (parents or otherwise) awake long after they have finished the book.