Book: The Changeling
Author: Victor LaValle
Published: June 13, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Although Penguin Random House classifies The Changeling by Victor LaValle as “Literary Fiction” and “Contemporary Fantasy,” LaValle’s book doesn’t fit neatly into either genre. The novel defines itself in its first line: “This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike” (3). While modern audiences may have become accustomed to seeing Hans Christian Andersen’s tales in their sanitized Disney form, LaValle, as well as the characters in The Changeling, work to return fairy tales to their visceral origins, packed with social commentary while incorporating technology and addressing race.
LaValle’s protagonist, Apollo Kwaga, is a rare and antiquarian bookseller and for the first one-hundred pages or so, his life is mundane. The only hints of a supernatural world emerging in the opening pages are seen in pictures texted to his wife Emma that mysteriously disappear before she can show them to Apollo. They have their first child, and Emma suffers from something that looks very much like postpartum depression; however, something shocking happens, forcing Apollo into a new, much darker, magical world.
Like most fairy tales, The Changeling is told from an omniscient third-person point of view, but it delightfully zooms in and out of character’s heads throughout the story, sometimes letting us peer into their thoughts, like Apollo’s eating at a French joint, “and just how much in sweet black Jesus did Bouley Restaurant charge for sparkling mineral water? Did they infuse it with fucking diamond dust before they served it?” (45). Other times it allows the narrator to slip outside of the characters altogether, and offer us observations beyond their self-awareness, like, “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, actually have to do that” (61). In these asides, LaValle shines. He’s funny and profound at once. His gift for description comes through as well in lines like, “thirty-eight weeks pregnant and [Emma] looked like a hummingbird that had swallowed an emu egg” (43).
LaValle’s love, and intimate knowledge of New York City, is on display throughout the story. Similarly to his recent novella The Ballad of Black Tom (soon to be a show on AMC) and his short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus in New York, LaValle molds New York, the city so many dream of, into a harsher fairy tale. While the whole of the book is contained in New York, Apollo’s travels through the different boroughs, islands in the East River, and in inner-city forests, make the world feel as sprawling and geographically diverse as a whole country.
Perhaps the best part of LaValle’s work in this novel is the way in which he addresses modern social issues through the complexity of his characters and their personal experiences. Apollo identifies as half-Ugandan and half-white. His racial identity—as well as that of his best friend, Iraqi war veteran and fellow black antiquarian book dealer Patrice—is a consistent source of struggle for the character and one in which the author doesn’t shy away from discussing or acknowledging in the context of Apollo’s world and his daily interactions. An example of this: Apollo is on his way to confront a mystical evil and is stopped by the police for being black in the wrong neighborhood. Patrice puts it best when he says, “We can be heroes… But heroes like us don’t get to make mistakes” (299).While the novel addresses gender roles in more serious fashion with Apollo’s ideas of “new Dads” versus “old Dads,” Patrice also is allowed room in the narrative to address Men’s Right’s Activists in scathing and hilarious terms (“ ‘Women only like jerks.’ That’s the mantra of dudes who have made themselves undateable but aren’t willing to take the blame.” (192)) LaValle’s commitment to crafting a story that doesn’t shy away from political awareness and consequences alone would make The Changeling worth reading. His storytelling demonstrates that if your story contains diverse and fully developed characters at the forefront of its telling, then you’re also creating space for discussing their individualized experiences in a way that gives credence to their worldviews. The personal is still a wonderful place to show the political.
While it has some faults — a slow opening, a few dropped narrative threads, some extra fat in the middle — The Changeling is well worth reading. Even if the ending is a bit abrupt, the closing passage is spectacular. LaValle is reclaiming fairy tales for adults while simultaneously modernising them.. The project is worthwhile, and the author is more than up to the task. Buy this book. You will not be disappointed.