September 2015, Manhattan, KS — I ran into the Kansas State University Student Union on my way back from work. English majors collect more flyers for guest lecture events than pocket lint. Creative writing students attend or fail their classes. This time, however, the room on the second floor in the back of the K-State Student Union slowly filled to capacity.
This visiting author rolled in. He talked quietly in a classic New York accent. For the reading, he said he had a section of a new book of his. He answered a few questions about the writing process, told us the character’s names, and explained a little bit about where they came from.
He paused and chuckled. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like, “Actually, guys, I had to ask my wife’s permission. Her name’s Emily. It sounds a lot like Emma.”
Then he read the creepiest prose I’ve ever heard read aloud, especially by a guest author.
Victor LaValle read Chapter 30 of The Changeling.
Fast forward to this summer, when The Changeling hit my doorstep one Amazon Prime weekend after I ordered it. This July release has been called a dark fairy tale, but that’s like calling Ingmar Bergman a Swedish guy who made movies. The Changeling delivers more just an edgy reboot of a fairy tale. It dishes out real, original American fantasy: a hybrid of immigrant folklore and modern myth.
Our story follows Apollo Kagwa and his paramour Emma Valentine. He’s the son of Ugandan mother and a white dad from upstate New York. She’s from Virginia, but longs to see South America. Apollo and Emma romance, get married, have a baby, and then the real ride begins.
Lovable Apollo is a book man. The scenes he spends digging in basements, estate sales, and hocking used copies of Pet Semetary ring through the nostalgia center of the brain like a quivering gong. He never knew his father, so he’s obsessed with becoming the best dad. Apollo has a closet so full of baby clothes that there’s no room for skeletons. He’s a modern fairy tale prince, although sometimes I really wish that a character who runs through the woods shouting, “I am the god of fire!” would bring the heat sometimes. Between his wife, his best friend, the antagonist, and even the NYPD, Apollo literally needs to be driven through the book.
Meanwhile, Emma is entrancing. She goes to South America, pretty much on a whim. She poses nude in photos that allegedly hang in an art gallery in the Netherlands. Exposition about her hidden powers forms like condensation. An aura of mystery weaves itself about her as she dances between holding down a part-time job at the public library and delivering mysterious statements about the red thread tied around her finger.
The story itself begins as a New York love story: both as a story set in New York and about how the characters/author love New York. Then, it becomes sheer horror for a chapter. After that, it begins a long descent into fantasy and American folklore. Witches happen, trolls appear online, trolls appear in the woods, and throughout it all the characters glance at their smartphones and scroll through their social media accounts. This tasteful mashup of make-believe and modern technoculture lets the reader stroll along casually through this book. I read this in a week and I felt like I rushed it, even though I had to set it down for ten minutes to look up “brennivin” on Wikipedia. It’s Nordic schnapps, apparently.
The Changeling delivers a brennivin-strength shot of LaValle’s world. It’s set in New York (have I mentioned that yet?) which is LaValle’s hometown and also the place he loves to describe in prose. It’s the backdrop of his other works Slapboxing with Jesus, Big Machine, and The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle’s New York can bounce between dreamy, astronomically expensive restaurants for hipsters to blood-freezing slogs on a grimy trawler around the East River. The setting in The Changeling varies, twists with the book, and feels like an overarching third main character. The city brings lovers together, throws obstacles into the hero’s path, and shelters the story’s mysteries in a labyrinth that draws characters from all over the globe.
Like a genie uncorked from a bottle, The Changeling grants the audience’s every wish. The hero maybe be overly simple, but his bizarre world enchants me to the point where I don’t mind. The final boss may seem incongruous in retrospect, but this story has bucked and weaved so much that I’m past caring about symmetry. The Changeling snatches from fairy tale after fairy tale, but it all rests on, the perfect cultural quilt, New York City.
Rating: four out of five stars. Read this if American Gods left a fog over your head. For people who don’t read, A.) Start here. B.) Don’t fret, The Changeling has already been optioned for a TV show.
Page count: 431
Favorite quote: “Gods and gorgons allied against them, and still they bore the spear and shield… Somehow they persevered.”