Book Club Made Me Read It | The Changeling
I’m a member of a small, informal, friends, and friends-of-friends book club. We try to read one book every 5 five weeks or so. The rules are simple: Everyone gets an opportunity to pick a book for the book club to read. Each member must pick a book that they have not personally read before and each member is responsible for leading the discussion after we read their selection. Sometimes the books are good. Sometimes they are not. I review them here regardless of their quality.
I’m a bitch and don’t care about ruining the experience for you, so I’m going to include spoilers whenever I please. That’s your only warning. Proceed at your own risk.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
Sigh. I wanted to like this one. I thought I was going to like this one. Hell, I did rather like the first 128 pages of this one, which makes it a real shame when the whole thing shits the bed in the final two-thirds.
Here’s the problem: Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is not a novel. It is at least three separate stories that are loosely stitched together into some vague semblance of a novel. It is an effective and frightening novella stretched into an increasingly disappointing novel. It is a bunch of ideas, about parenthood and family legacies and the dangers of the internet, with which the author would like to whack you about the head. It is a heavy-handed fairy tale that bemoans the heavy-handedness of fairy tales.
The first 128 pages are primarily the story of a relationship. Apollo Kagwa’s father left when he was a child, and he has felt the loss echo acutely across his life. Apollo meets, woos, and marries Emma Valentine, and they have a child. Apollo is deliriously happy to be a father, and he vows to be everything to his own son that he wishes his father could have been to him. Meanwhile, Emma slips increasingly into darkness and despair, refusing to call baby Brian by his name, refusing to care for him, insisting that he isn’t Brian at all. Apollo and Emma’s relationship grows antagonistic. Frustrated and angry at her inability to snap out of it, he pushes her away and devotes himself wholly to Brian. Emma’s presence in the story (which is told primarily from Apollo’s perspective) begins to feel more like that of a malevolent spirit than of a co-parent and partner. And then one day, Apollo wakes up chained with a bike lock to a steam pipe in their apartment and a kettle is whistling on the stove, and Brian is wailing in his bedroom. And Emma, Emma who has been insisting that the baby is wrong, takes a hammer to Apollo’s face and the kettle of boiling water to Brian’s room with the words, “It’s not a baby.”
And holy shit if this book had ended right there, I’d be writing a very different review right now. The vibrancy of their early relationship with each other, the slow creep of horror as things become more and more wrong in the Kagwa-Valentine household, the awful question of whether Emma might actually be right, the visceral brutality of the final scenes… It works. It’s good.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t end there. Instead, it takes one of the dullest turns for the fantastical that I’ve ever encountered.
The narrative continues after a time skip: Baby Brian is dead and buried, and Emma is missing, a fugitive from the law. Apollo, a used-bookseller, sells a rare book to a weird nerd who says he hopes to win his wife back with an extravagant gift, and then the nerd tells Apollo that he knows Emma is alive, and that his internet friends helped track her down. Apollo thinks this is great news, because he wants to kill Emma himself for murdering their child, so he and the weird nerd go on an adventure together to a magical island on the East River inhabited by women and children. The women there all, like Emma, killed their babies on the basis of a belief that it wasn’t their baby. Apollo starts to believe this fake baby thing might hold some water after all, and then we find out that his weird nerd buddy is actually a bad guy and the evidence of his badness is that… he killed his baby. Yeah, I know, but you see, he killed his real baby and not his fake baby, and that makes all the difference. Anyway, then his mysterious bad guy friends show up to wreak havoc and everyone flees the island and none of it really matters.
The whole island episode is about one hundred pages long and could be lifted entirely out of the book with no real loss to the plot.
I should probably curb my impulse to continue summarizing the absolutely whack plot of this book, in large part because I’m afraid that the short version will make it sound much more interesting than it actually is, but the whole thing ends with Apollo finding Emma, who is a witch now, and they fuck and get back together without ever bothering to have a conversation about the fact that she hammered his fucking face in and maybe they should look for a couples counselor or something. Also, a troll has been trying to raise the real not-dead baby Brian, so Apollo and Emma kill the troll and get their baby back and also murder both the weird nerd who bought the rare book and the nerd’s dad, but not before the dad does a straight-up Bond-villain exposition dump to explain everything about how a troll emigrated to New York with a bunch of Norwegians in the 1820s and now his family is responsible for stealing real babies and replacing them with fake changeling babies, so the troll can try to raise the real babies (except it always fucks up and eats them instead).
THE BOOK… TAKES ONE OF THE DULLEST TURNS FOR THE FANTASTICAL THAT I’VE ENCOUNTERED.
Meanwhile, there’s a B-plot about Apollo’s absent father, which eventually reveals that Apollo’s dad tried to kill him (in a fit of If I can’t have him, no one gets to.) as a toddler. Also, Emma’s mom tried to kill her and her sister as part of a murder-suicide. Basically this book is an exercise in How many subplots and backstories centered on the themes of ‘family secrets’ and ‘violence committed by parents in the name of their children’ can I cram into a single book? There is a distinct lack of subtlety at work here.
Much to-do is made about the dangers of posting things on Facebook (people will know things about you!), which mostly reads as though it is written by someone who has never actually used Facebook himself but asked his friend to tell him about it. The book twice uses the exact same metaphor about how dangerous it is: That putting stuff about your life on the internet is like inviting a vampire into your home — you’ve compromised your safety by making your private world accessible to the monsters. One of the villains (the aforementioned weird nerd) is an internet troll working in cahoots with an actual troll. I cannot roll my eyes hard enough to convey my exasperation with this.
There’s a bunch of miscellaneous shit that seems like it’s meant to be symbolic or important but just… isn’t. There’s a room that has four space heaters in it, which seems like it’s an important detail given how many times the extreme heat in the room is referenced, but it turns out the only reason there are four space heaters in that room is that the plot requires a way for Apollo and Emma set a house fire later, and four space heaters fits the bill nicely. Another example: The narration specifically remarks upon a headstone with the name Catherine Linton on it, at the cemetery where not-Brian is buried, but it doesn’t appear to mean anything... Did the author intend some symbolic significance there that he failed to convey? (At best, I can come up with some loose connection to the general “fucked up families” theme that runs rampant in The Changeling.) Is it supposed to be a fun little easter egg for the lit nerd who recognizes that name as a character from Wuthering Heights? Is it just “Look at how smart I am, I can drop in random literary references” masturbatory bullshit?
Honestly, an extraordinary amount of stuff happens in this book, and most of it is a mix of astonishingly boring and ham-fisted. It tries really hard to weave an epic modern fairy tale about parenthood, but there are too many abrupt left turns into entirely new plots and not enough cohesion and interweaving of threads throughout the whole tale. Classic fairy tales can do that sort of thing and still work in no small part because they’re short, but this is a 430-page book, which is actually just several ideas for different novellas loosely Frankensteined together, and all of them end up being less interesting collectively than any one of them might have been on its own.
MY RATING: 2/5 stars
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT FOR: Writing a solid 128-page novella about a woman who might have serious postpartum depression or might actually have identified that her baby is a changeling and no one else can see it.
PLEASE NO MORE: Everything after page 128.
SHOUT-OUT TO: Victor LaValle's Destroyer, which is a comic book unrelated to The Changeling aside from the fact that it has the same author. But the full title of the comic book is legit Victor LaValle's Destroyer, which is just… awful. Why would you do that? Sorry Victor LaValle, but you’re nowhere near good enough nor famous enough to justify putting your own name as a possessive in the title, and I don’t care if it’s your fault or the publisher’s fault, fuck everyone involved in that decision.