When I was a child I read every folktale and myth available to me. I loved Goldilocks and Baba Yaga, Br’er Rabbit and Cú Chulainn and Thor and Anansi. I loved them all, and held them all as equally important. I loved their adventures, and I figured they might as well all be real. (I still do.) I imagined myself into their adventures, and if that meant hopping over the barrier between male and female that’s what I did, and that’s how I learned that that barrier was an illusion. I was able to have those adventures in my mind, and it was fine. But what if I had been faced with one of those adventures in life, in corporeal flesh, where people would look at me and make assumptions because of the shape my flesh took? What if my adventure was, repeatedly, interrupted by others’ assumptions about me?
Victor LaValle’s new novel The Changeling is a horror story, a fairy tale, an epic myth, and a modern, urban fiction. It’s about parenthood, and toxic masculinity, and internet privacy, and a horrific world of magic hiding behind a veneer of civilization, and it’s one of the most New York books I’ve ever read. But most of all it’s about what happens when a Black man is the hero of a fairy story. What happens when your quest requires you to venture into a dark forest…but that forest lies beyond a tony white neighborhood patrolled by racist cops? What if your quest means that you must do prison time? What if your quest ends up broadcast on NY1? What if even the most terrifying monsters aren’t as tough as simply surviving in America?
What does it mean for a small Black boy to read folklore and myth and discover as a man that none of those stories were for him? What does it mean to be raised on stories of white people being heroes, to discover the when the call to adventure (finally!) comes, he is not allowed to step up?
LaValle has engaged with this question directly in The Ballad of Black Tom, when he wrote about Tommy Tester, a young Black man who finds himself in a Lovecraft story. Just as Ballad’s Tommy Tester is warned to get out of Flushing before dark, a matching pair of paternalistic cops suggest that The Changeling’s Apollo head on out of the nice part of Forest Hills. Hell, they’re nice about it. They even give him a ride to the bus stop.
In the back of the squad car.
I don’t want to spoil the intricacies of the plot, just know that this book is vast and contains as many multitudes as fellow New York outsider Walt Whitman himself. Apollo Kagwe, the son of an African mother and a white Upstate New Yorker father, becomes one of the few Black “book men” in New York. He deals in used books, ranging from the deepest Bronx up to Connecticut estate sales, all in search of first editions and rare signed copies to sell online. His one real friend is the only other Black book man he knows, an Army veteran named Patrice.
Apollo’s own obsession with books began with a Maurice Sendak book, Outside Over There, which his father read to him nightly before he vanished from his son’s life. Outside Over There is the story of a changeling. Big sister Ida isn’t watching the baby, and goblins come and replace her with ice. This sends Ida on a quest to retrieve her sister and prove herself to her father, who expects her to be the baby’s caretaker while he’s away at sea. (If this sounds like Labyrinth, it’s because the film was inspired by Sendak’s tale.) Apollo, grown into manhood, recites passages of the book to himself as a mantra, along with the phrase “I am the god, Apollo” when he needs to bolster his confidence. It’s necessary often, because it turns out many white people are immediately mistrustful of young Black men trying to sell books. He is kept waiting in vestibules, forced to sort books in driveways under the watchful eyes of estate owners, denied the use of the bathroom—and that’s after he’s endured the suspicion of the neighbors.
He recites the book, and his mantra, when he dates Emma Valentine, and while their son Brian is born, and during the many adventures that follow as their lives turn into a fairy tale. Not a Disney-fied “happily ever after” fairy tale, but an old school, Eastern European, bloody, serious-as-death-itself fairy tale. As if all that isn’t enough, he also gives us a corrective to the young male hero who stars in most of these stories—Emma Valentine is just as central to the action as Apollo, and her struggles as a mother and triumphs as a person are, in some ways, even more important than Apollo’s arc—but again, to say much more about the plot would be to spoil the adventure. Obviously there are clues to the story right there in the title, but it’s so much more than that. Because LaValle, as he did in Ballad, has created a truly modern fairy tale that calls to mind nothing as much as American Gods, or The Fisher King.
How do you follow the rules of a fairy tale in New York City? How do you appease gods and monsters when you have to find a way to navigate the East River and the A train? LaValle has threaded his story through the realities of life in this city. Traffic on the FDR; the kids who barge onto a train announcing “It’s showtiiiiime!” at the most inopportune moments; waiting for a bus in an outer borough; how freaking long it takes to get to Queens, no matter what mode of transport you choose—it’s all here. If you’ve lived here, you’ll love it, if you’ve ever wanted to live here, you might just be able to read the book instead, and if you hate this city this book could serve as a form of therapy for you. (Personally I love this city more every day I live here.)
This is also one of the rawest, most honest accounts of new parenthood I’ve ever read. I’m not a parent, and don’t plan to have children myself, but LaValle (who is a parent) captures both the exhaustion and the joy that I’ve seen my friends go through. Apollo and Emma are realistically wrung out by full-time parenthood, Emma has to go back to work immediately, and breaks down crying on her walk to work, then revels in being an adult with other adults again. Apollo posts dozens of blurry baby pictures on Facebook, and then checks to make sure all of his friends have shown their awe of his son in the form of likes and hearts. As I said, this is fully a modern story. But when we fall into the fairy tale, LaValle handles ancient rules and timelessness just as well as satirical commentary on brand new apps and Baby Bjorns.
LaValle dips into a whole world of story for this book. Myths both Greek and Norse, comics, the Rocky movies, children’s classics, To Kill a Mockingbird—all are put into the blender of his books and characters, and used in unexpected and gorgeous ways. He also tackles the most modern question of all: what the hell is our internet use doing to us? As several characters say, you used to have to invite vampires into your home, but now they can come in via your phone, your iPad, your Facebook account. Your whole life is served up like an exposed throat, and you don’t even give it a first thought, let alone a second. The trolls and hatemongers that feed on human spectacle, misery, terror are only to happy to exploit this invitation while they hide behind absurd names and Twitter handles, and the fact that this element becomes so central to the book feels as inevitable as the constant threat of police violence.
I mentioned American Gods before because as I finished the book (after reading it in two breathless sessions) I realized that I had just read the heir to that classic. Neil Gaiman did a thorough job when he wrote a racially-ambiguous character, digging into how American racism affected Shadow Moon’s call to adventure. (The current TV show is, to my mind, doing an even better job.) But there’s still a distance between imagination and empathy and lived reality, and LaValle is able to excavate wounds that may have scabbed over, but sure as hell haven’t healed. This is the first book I’ve read in years that engages with age-old myth in a way that feels as vital as Gaiman’s best work, but it’s even more alert to the ways race, class, and prejudice can infect every aspect of a person’s life. The Changeling is an instant classic, and if I had the funds and an inexhaustible supply of shoes, I would be selling this sucker door-to-door.
The Changeling is available now from Spiegel & Grau.
Leah Schnelbach really really really wants to lead a walking tour based on this book. You can find her in the dark and mysterious forests of Twitter!