A Life Among Horrors
Victor LaValle’s The Changeling explores the horrors of fatherhood
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Why aren’t there more domestic horror novels? There are all kinds of popular “scary” books with vampires, witches, and ghosts, but there are far too few that look at the everyday horrors that terrorize us. Motherhood, fatherhood, childhood — these are labels that we attach to ourselves (or ones that society attaches to us), but we too rarely examine how these classifications impose on our lives. Isn’t it true that we wonder if we are as good as our own parents? Don’t even children consider if they behave similarly to their peers on the playground? Thoughts of inadequacy and even total failure haunt all of us at some point. Victor LaValle, who is best known for his past novels The Devil in Silver and Big Machine, brilliantly and terrifyingly explores the common horrors of domestic life in his latest genre-bending novel, The Changeling.
“LaValle […] bluntly and unexpectedly punches us in the gut.”
Antique book dealer Apollo Kagwa, LaValle’s protagonist, has a fascination with fatherhood. Apollo’s own father left when he was just four years old, and he wonders why. It’s a mystery that he can’t shake. In fact, the question of his father’s absence haunts him so greatly that strange, ominous dreams about his father’s disappearance have plagued him since his childhood. When Apollo finds out that his wife, Emma, is pregnant, he vows to be a different kind of father for his son.
And it’s a promise that Apollo keeps. Soon after Emma gives birth, Apollo shows great care in loving his son:
“Apollo unbuttoned his shirt so he could hold the boy directly against his skin. The baby didn’t cry, didn’t flutter his eyes yet, only opened and closed his tiny mouth. Apollo watched his son take his gasping, first breaths. He watched that little face for what seemed like quite a while, an hour or an eternity.”
While Apollo’s actions show a sense of loving commitment toward his son, Apollo still feels pain from the abandonment he faced from his father. Thinking he can rectify this feeling, Apollo asks Emma if they can name the baby Brian, which was Apollo’s father’s name. The hope is that if Apollo can love one Brian perhaps both Brians can, at least in Apollo’s mind, love Apollo and make things right. Emma agrees to the name.
Apollo and Emma take home baby Brian, and Apollo triumphantly takes on the role of a modern day dad. He changes diapers, he cares for Brian emotionally, he cradles him and comforts him. He does all that he can think of to be a good father.
Things seem like they are on a good path — one with a gentle resolution, but this is a LaValle novel. There’s trouble brewing. Emma, who seems to be suffering from post-partum depression, grows distant from Brian and her husband. She begins to claim that she receives strange picture texts of Brian, but when Apollo questions the existence of the pictures, they are nowhere to be found. She goes so far as to claim that the baby she knows as her son isn’t her child. Things get weird, and they get dark.
LaValle, in what is the novel’s best chapter, bluntly and unexpectedly punches us in the gut. We find Apollo tied to a chair, disoriented and crying out for his son. Emma appears and beats her husband. Then, a truly awful event occurs. As a result, Emma flees, and the story shifts from being one firmly planted in the real world (with tinges of fabulism) to one exploring otherworldly sectors of New York rather boldly.
The fascinating dissection of the horrors of fatherhood continues throughout the second half of The Changeling, but LaValle also explores the pitfalls of technology in a startling way that is quite affecting:
“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 home. But at least a home, a physical building, has a door you can shut, windows you can latch. Technology has no locked doors.”
The Changeling reminds us that technology can get us easier than any monster.
LaValle has total command throughout the tight, short chapters contained in The Changeling. Every section builds upon the previous one in a way that makes each sentence feel necessary. The characters are believable, and the situations, although they are magical, seem just as plausible.
To talk about the The Changeling’s ending would spoil the fun. I’ll say that it’s fulfilling, and it’s even surprisingly emotional. This is the kind of novel where everything works.
If you are looking for one book to read this summer, stop. Here it is. Allow Victor LaValle’s masterpiece to haunt your dreams.