- Courage and Perseverance
Spiegel & Grau
448 Pages; Print, $16.20
Shortly after I finished reading the fantastical journey that is Victor LaValle's The Changeling, I found myself with The Dramatics' 1970s hit "Whatcha See is Whatcha Get" stuck in my head. Thinking of the song itself immediately transports me back to my childhood, particularly riding in the backseat of my parents' car throughout the 1990s. Like most kids, I had very little control of the radio at the time, so I passively learned all of my mother's favorite songs, which were primarily R&B and Soul classics from the 1960s and 1970s. "Whatcha See is Whatcha Get" was amongst the regular rotation I memorized without really even trying.
It's possible that the recent presence of this earworm was, in fact, a complete coincidence. But I can't help but think that LaValle's thoroughly unpredictable tale of illusions tapped into the musical recesses of my mind to pull forth this particular connection. I hadn't previously taken much time to think about the song's lyrics in detail. Like many people, I suspect, I'd primarily gravitated toward the impossible-to-ignore grooving beat that sustains those lyrics. But as the song played in my head this time, I paid much more attention to the words. In particular, the lines that proclaim "You know some people are made of lies to bring you down" seem wholly relevant to the both the specific narrative that LaValle unravels in The Changeling as well as the broader societal struggles the novel gestures toward. LaValle himself prefaces The Changeling with a quote from another 1970s classic, Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." The quoted lines that LaValle selects—"When you believe in things you don't understand, then you suffer"—not only help to set a musical tone for the opening chapters of the novel, which traverse main character Apollo's childhood and adolescence in the New York of the 1970s and 1980s, but also provide a clue to the overarching questions the novel grapples with. What do we believe to be true? Why? What happens when what we've always believed turns out to be based on inaccurate or incomplete information? In foregrounding these types of questions, The Changeling maintains the sort of unpredictable mystery and suspense that make it difficult to find a satisfactory place to pause while reading the 400+ page text. The novel also invites asking such questions not just about the fantastical elements of the story, but also about the "real world" that readers are more familiar with. What can happen to us—personally, professionally, societally, globally—when beliefs cause harm?
In addition to charting Apollo's youth, the first third of the novel recounts the evolution of his parents' relationship as well as Apollo's own relationship with his eventual wife, Emma. There's a certain parallelism to how these two courtship stories unfold. Both include elements of passion and persistence as well as a desire to do better than the parental and/or environmental examples that were set for them. Wanting to be a better father and partner than his mostly absent father, Apollo commits himself to supporting his wife and son with the utmost of care and presence, even if that means taking his infant son, Brian (curiously named after Apollo's aforementioned absentee father) to work with him in shady basements. Momentarily, it seems that Apollo and Emma have a solid foundation and are well on their way to happily ever after.
Of course, if that were the case, The Changeling wouldn't be much of a story to remark about. But, fairly quickly, LaValle makes it clear that this isn't really a story about happy endings. Instead, it's a story about truth, lies, deception, and—perhaps most of all—choices. How do the choices we make affect not only ourselves, but also the people within and beyond our personal networks? By the end of the first third of the book, Emma makes a choice that catches Apollo off-guard and completely alters his beliefs and expectations about both their...