This New York Love Story Subverts Its ‘Happily Ever After’

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THE CHANGELING
By Victor LaValle
431 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.

“I think I hate those fairy tales,” an evil old man declares in Victor LaValle’s strange and wonderful new novel, “The Changeling.” “Not really the tales, but how they end. Three words that ruin everything. ‘Happily ever after.’” Everybody’s a critic, especially in New York City, where this bitter man lives and where virtually the entirety of LaValle’s story — which is a fairy tale — takes place. (The urban action is interrupted only by a couple of nervous forays into the terra incognita of Nassau County.) In New York, its natives know, there’s no such thing as “ever after”: Everything changes, all the time, and the best we can do is plant our feet and hold on tight, straphangers on the hurtling express train of fate. The three words (spoiler alert) are in fact uttered on the last page of “The Changeling,” but LaValle revises them as soon as they’ve been spoken. He’s a New Yorker, Queens-raised. He gets that happiness isn’t somewhere you live forever; it’s an apartment whose rent isn’t stabilized, much less controlled.

“The Changeling,” it should be noted, is a particular kind of fairy tale: “the old kind,” in the words of the omniscient narrator, “when such stories were meant for adults, not kids.” Once upon a time, that is. LaValle begins his tale way back in 1968, in the brief Fun City era of Mayor John Lindsay, at a moment that foreshadowed the city’s darker days of the ’70s: A sanitation workers’ strike is in progress, and the streets of all five boroughs are piling fast with uncollected garbage. In this fetid atmosphere, two Queens residents meet: “Lillian Kagwa emigrated from Uganda,” the narrator tells us, in a knowing magic-realist tone, “while Brian West arrived from the only slightly less foreign territory of Syracuse.” It’s love at first sight for Brian, a parole officer keeping an eye on Lillian’s boss, but not for her. She’s had a rougher life; she’s warier. But Brian persists and is gradually, eventually rewarded. They marry and have a son, whom they name Apollo. “And they lived happily ever after,” the narrator says. “At least for a few years.” Next paragraph: “By Apollo’s fourth birthday Brian West was gone.” So that’s the kind of fairy tale this is going to be.

Then, having abruptly wakened his audience from one happily-ever-after reverie, LaValle dares us to dream another, if we can, this time a coming-of-age story in which young Apollo grows up to become a dealer in used and rare books, finds true love in the form of a strong and comely librarian named Emma, and has a son of his own, whom they call Brian, after the vanished father. Despite the warnings we’ve been given, the teller’s calm, lulling voice draws us in again, fills our childlike imaginations with the hope that this time things will turn out differently. And they do: What befalls Apollo and Emma and little Brian is much more terrible.

The book’s title hints at the nature of the catastrophe, but doesn’t fully convey the sheer force of it, the gut-punch shock LaValle delivers to his trusting readers. As his Lovecraftian novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” showed just a year ago, he’s not timid either about conjuring horrors or about describing the emotions they evoke in their unfortunate victims. His horrors hurt, and keep hurting for a good while after the worst seems to be over. Apollo, in the months after the apparent end of his happiness, finds himself reliving the dire events and running around the city — mostly using public transportation — in a desperate attempt to make some sense of what’s happened to him. He’s like a knight on a melancholy, half-crazed quest, which brings him to a secret community of women on an abandoned island in the East River, and from there to a cemetery on Long Island, where he feels he’s reached “the farthest landmark on this new map of the spectral territories. Ultima Thule of grief.” And still there’s farther for him to go, deep into the wilderness of Forest Park in Queens, where something uncanny (and disturbingly large) lives. Survival in New York City is a challenge at the best of times, for everybody, but this hero’s ordeals, by water and fire and social media, are sterner trials of faith than even the mad monks of the Inquisition could dream up. They’re worse than a garbage strike.

What Apollo Kagwa goes through in “The Changeling” is, deliberately, a version of the scary adventures that a plucky little girl named Ida has for herself in Maurice Sendak’s great 1981 picture book “Outside Over There,” a copy of which the hero finds in a mysterious box left by his absent father. “When Papa was away at sea,” Sendak’s dread story begins, introducing a Grimm-like tale of a baby stolen by goblins and replaced with an inhuman facsimile. That’s the sort of thing that happens, it seems, when Papa’s gone and Mama is, as the exquisite illustrations suggest, lost in herself, gaga. As Jonathan Cott’s fascinating new book, “There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak,” makes clear, “Outside Over There” was an especially personal work for its author, who took years to produce it: This fairy tale expresses, in words and pictures, Sendak’s feelings about the remoteness of his own parents during his New York childhood, and quite a bit else besides. (Including his obsession with Mozart, whose spirit hovers over the fantastic proceedings as Sendak’s does over “The Changeling.”) That’s what this sort of story is supposed to do. As a witch named Callisto tells Apollo: “A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral. A great fairy tale tells the truth.”

In “The Changeling” LaValle does more than his share of truth-telling, about the anxieties and ambivalences of modern parenting, the psychological value of the stories we tell ourselves and our children, and the rigors of survival in urban America. Most of the characters in his rambunctious fairy-tale epic — both good and bad, and all descended from immigrants — pay an awfully steep price for a sense of safety in this country, this city, or their ancestors paid it, decades and centuries ago. “No one wants to learn their history,” the evil old guy (a chilling variant on Poe’s Man of the Crowd) tells Apollo. “Not all of it.” This novel doesn’t try to get quite all of it in, but it’s rich in the ambiguous history of the New World metropolis that is its noisy, clamorous setting.

W. B. Yeats in his youth wrote a changeling poem called “The Stolen Child,” whose refrain is “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” In New York terms, that sentiment, which underlies everything LaValle writes, translates roughly as “The rent is too damn high.” The people of “The Changeling” pay and pay for their fleeting stretches of happiness, weep in the meantime, then pay again, and tell themselves the stories they need to go on. In New York there are monsters (and heroes) on every corner, not outside over there but right here. It’s a hell of a town.