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The Changeling

August 5, 2017

Victor Lavalle’s new novel The Changeling is another of the books I was sent to help me while away my convalescence, and it began by adding a dark flavor to my narcotic-painkiller-laced dreams.

For the first hundred pages or so, this is a gritty, realistic novel about people who live in New York City (yawn, I get tired of books about NYC). We get perspectives from the main character, a seemingly ordinary guy named Apollo, about parenthood, PTSD, and pals: “People tell little lies to get by. That goes for marriage and friendships, too. But now Apollo couldn’t brush off these untruths as benign. If our relationships are made of many small lies, they become something larger, a prison of falsehoods.” But then the story begins to take some turns towards the weird.

Apollo sets out on a quest to find out what has happened to his wife and child and he ends up visiting an enclave of women and children on an island very near NYC where they talk about how the story of Rapunzel raises the question of how we can protect our children:
“The enchantress hides the girl away in a tower. She won’t let the child do anything in the world without her. She’s a helicopter parent….But the prince still finds a way inside, doesn’t he? 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.”

Later, faced with the task of digging up his dead baby’s grave, Apollo thinks about stories again:
“In those old stories…the heroes did what they did but you never knew why. In the stories, at least, they had no interior life. Their job was simply to act. Gods and gorgons allied against them, and still they bore the spear and shield. Still they walked into the deep, dark forests. But did those heroes ever feel like Apollo did now? The real people, not the characters they became. They were human beings too, after all. They must’ve shivered in the shadow of the world’s great horrors. They must have wondered how they would ever see the quest through. And somehow they persevered. Maybe that was the point of telling these stories again and again, one generation to the next.
If they could be brave, then we might be, too.”

What Apollo finds in the baby’s grave is not metaphorically a changeling. At this point, the plot turns literal. He sees that what he took for a baby was “pounds and pounds of hair—fur?—looped and twined so tightly, it looked like barbed wire.”

Eventually, Apollo has to go fight the actual troll that someone’s great-great-great grandfather brought over from Europe. Sacrificing a child to the troll ensured their safe passage across the ocean:
“they all have him to thank for making a safe crossing to America even if none of those pious sorts ever would. People can choose ignorance, can’t they? Life is easier in blinders….Even if you choose to ignore the truth, the truth still changes you.”

At this point in the novel, the reason for telling these particular tales at this particular moment in history emerges:
“In folktales a vampire couldn’t enter your home unless you invited him in. Without your consent the beast could never cross your threshold. Well, what do you think your computer is? Your phone? You live inside those devices so those devices are your homes. But at least a home, a physical building, has a door you can shut, windows you can latch. Technology has no locked doors.
People share everything now….They share which playgrounds they visit with their children and at what times. They share when they’ve hired a babysitter. They share photos of the schools their children attend. They’re so proud of their children. They can’t help themselves. They want to share it all. But who are they sharing it with? Do they really know what they’ve invited into their homes? I promise they don’t.”

And after that, the reason for the overly long, realistic windup to this novel emerges, too. The story of Apollo’s father has been told so that he will realize that he was trying “to be the kind of father he’d never had. What lengths will people stretch to believe they’re still good?”

The metaphorical significance of each event is set up, milked dry, and then explicitly stated for maximum didactic effect. The story ended up being less scary and exciting than it might have been, like a children’s picture book that features “the moral” right on the cover.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2017 9:20 am

    Hmmm. I’m working on a book right now that I may send you. Reading this review makes me curious what you’d say. Just don’t expect me to write a reaction paper –

    • August 5, 2017 10:10 am

      I will not…you know I tend towards and often love didacticism, but this novel went too far for me. It’s a delicate balance, to try to teach with fiction.

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