Stranger Things

The Changeling: A Novel BY Victor LaValle. Spiegel & Grau. Hardcover, 448 pages. $28.

The cover of The Changeling: A Novel

Victor LaValle’s first book, Slapboxing with Jesus (1999), offered realistic depictions of working-class young people in the five boroughs, but by his second novel, The Ecstatic (2002), something stranger, if not outright weird, had begun to creep in. A little more weirdness came with each book: Big Machine follows a man who, having survived a death-obsessed cult, is recruited, at a bus station, to join what might be called a paranormal investigation squad. You could attribute some of the bizarre moments to the characters’ fraught mental states; perhaps, you might think, it’s all in their minds. But LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) commits fully and unambiguously to the weird, even as it critiques the weird’s chief figure, H. P. Lovecraft, by taking his racist story “The Horror at Red Hook” and reworking it into something else entirely.

LaValle has a keen awareness of fantastical genre fiction and film, of horror in particular, and his work offers rewards for those with a similar knowledge. (The Changeling features a minor character named Charles Blackwood and a boat called the Merricat—two allusions that have great resonance if you know Shirley Jackson’s work.) But LaValle is also intent on reworking genre fiction in his own particular way. From the beginning, he has been interested in what the tropes of fantastical fiction can offer when invoked in conjunction with characters like those of his first book: working-class folks, often of color, with a nonprivileged relationship to New York.

Nowhere is that clearer than in The Changeling. What makes this novel so effective is its ability to use genre tropes in a way that doesn’t neglect (or mischaracterize) the race or class or everyday experiences of its protagonists. Too often, books about New York, like movies about New York (or really movies about any iconic place), hit all the sights and show us the same places we’ve seen, peddling a largely illusory sense of belonging or familiarity. LaValle presents a different city. True, we see, briefly, the Strand (which makes sense since Apollo Kagwa, the main character, is a bookseller), but we also spend time in ratty apartments, in small houses out in Queens, in a church basement, at a library, and on North Brother Island in the East River, the site of an abandoned hospital.

Apollo Kagwa is the son of a Ugandan mother and a long-absent white father. He’s an antiquarian-book dealer who is just making ends meet, particularly after he marries Emma, a librarian, and they have a child, Brian. Apollo thinks of himself as one of the “New Dads,” fathers who are deeply involved with raising their children, at once eager to make up for the lack of involvement of their own fathers and also, since they’re making the job up as they go, scared and insecure.

When Emma claims to be getting strange messages that rapidly disappear from her phone before anyone else can see them, her sister Kim thinks she’s experiencing postpartum depression, and Apollo encourages her to medicate it away. Before long, Emma, who has begun to wonder if Brian is really her son after all, commits a horrific act and then disappears, leaving Apollo devastated, childless, and unsure of how to go on with his life.

All of this might be seen as a work of realism about madness, but as the book progresses the realistic surface begins to be riddled with fissures and cracks that reveal something monstrous beneath. Apollo’s disturbing childhood dreams about his missing father start to recur, and a stranger appears claiming he wants to help him find his wife. Apollo can’t shake the thought of a book his father used to read obsessively to him when he was a child, Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, about a girl whose baby sister is stolen by goblins. Before long, Apollo seems willing to go to almost any lengths to figure out what really happened to his wife and his son.

In addition to invigorating the naturalist novel by infusing it with horror, LaValle introduces contemporary phone and app technology into his increasingly strange story. That’s been done before—Peter Straub brings the dead into collision with e-mail in In the Night Room, and Paul Tremblay uses phone-camera technology very effectively in his recent Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. But The Changeling digs deeper, providing subtle commentary about larger issues of computer security, access, and privacy. It feels very much like it’s set within our own mobile device–dominated world, which makes the moments when the stability of that world begins to crumble all the more unsettling. As one character suggests, technology invites monsters: “There are no secrets anymore. Vampires can’t come into your house unless you invite them. Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can come right in.” (Leaving doors open, it turns out, is key to one of the book’s central plots.)

But for all his insight into contemporary culture, LaValle is primarily interested in telling a good story. In The Changeling, he presents an almost unthinkable act, and then complicates this by introducing supernatural elements. And then of course there are the very real evils of injustice, class divisions, and racism. Nobody is better at combining daily struggles and the supernatural than LaValle, and in helping us understand the convergences between the 99 percent and the things that go bump in the night. In such a city, fairy-tale endings no longer work. But even if there is no happily ever after here, we can still find a fugitive joy. LaValle’s respect for love and the domestic provides a nice counterpoint to the darkness that threatens to overwhelm these characters, without lessening the threat at the story’s heart.

Brian Evenson’s most recent book is A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016).