Victor LaValle’s new novel The Changeling starts out as a gentle romance and a good-natured look at fatherhood in the age of smartphones. After Apollo Kagwa’s son is born, he gets swept up in the performativity of being a “New Dad,” a Baby Bjorn-wearing father who posts endless baby pictures on Facebook. But when Apollo’s wife Emma starts to receive mysterious pictures of their son via her smartphone, that’s your first clue that something terrible is happening.
The creepy smartphone pictures—which disappear as soon as Emma looks at them, and not because they’re on Snapchat—are just the first step in a horrifying journey. The Changeling has all of the qualities of a good page-turner, replete with twists, turns, and surprises (some grotesque and violent). Without giving any major spoilers, LaValle’s novel eventually lives up to the fairytale implications of its title, but it also keeps coming back to themes of social media and voyeurism.
In fact, The Changeling is the perfect reimagining of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen for the modern oversharing era. Much of the menace and dread in this book come from the realization that we all reveal way too much about ourselves on Facebook and other sites—and meanwhile, unscrupulous people are out there who can use our own technology to spy on us, even beyond the limits of our exhibitionism.
With painstaking attention to details, LaValle proves that Facebook stalkers and Internet trolls can be as terrifying and unsettling as any ghost or goblin.
The opposite of the “like” button
For many people, nothing’s scarier than when something evil and uncanny touches their child. That’s why so many horror movies feature infants at the center of some monstrous invasion. But LaValle’s book stands out for the sheer speed with which his spiky-but-happy narrative curdles into sheer paranoia. This is, in part, thanks to the skill and subtlety with which LaValle ratchets up your awareness of just how hazardous it is to be an African-American man in America. At one crucial point in the story, when Apollo is close to uncovering the truth about his bizarre situation, he gets stopped by police officers merely for being in an affluent neighborhood, which he’s warned to leave immediately.
But The Changeling also keeps finding little ways to remind us of the intrusive reach of technology in every part of our lives. We’re constantly reminded that the used-book market is dominated by Internet marketplaces and that the Internet has changed the way people think about books as physical objects. Meanwhile, the mounting horror of the disappearing baby surveillance pictures is heightened by the message boards and Internet forums where Emma goes to find more information. Later, both Apollo and Emma wind up pilloried on social media, including a Facebook group that’s been formed to leer at the tragedies they’ve endured. By the time the book reaches its climax, people’s computers are getting hacked, and ubiquitous surveillance is one major aspect of the monster stalking them.
The Changeling also impresses by conjuring the intimate details of a marriage, of parenthood, and then of life after something unbearable has happened—while also maintaining a breakneck pace. A major turning point happens in the story seemingly every chapter or so, yet its world feels solid and believable with fully grounded characters.
There are a million great details about Apollo and Emma’s marriage, from falling asleep in a movie theater during “date night” after leaving their new baby with a relative to the thrill and anxiety of discovering new things about each other’s life before marriage. I felt like I was actually sitting in the New York restaurants and subway cars where the action unfolds. Thus, it comes as more of a shock when Emma appears to unravel in the face of their strange situation and even more so when LaValle forces us to see Emma as something new: monster, maniac, witch, or maybe even hero.
Coming soon to a TV near you
LaValle has already won award nominations and acclaim for his reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft in The Ballad of Black Tom, and he won both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Shirley Jackson Award for his previous mainstream novels. So he’s perhaps the perfect person to bring horror, and specifically dark fairy tales, into a new focus for the smartphone era. He bundles a lot of postmodern anxieties into his story of fatherhood and electronic surveillance. When we finally meet something ancient and evil in The Changeling, it’s still not as scary as the idea of people creating an online forum for the express purpose of gawping at your personal misfortune.
Meanwhile, Apollo’s job as a rare-book dealer serves as an interesting contrast to the flood of electronic ephemera. His search for valuable old books is the ultimate exercise in determining cultural value in real money. Apollo visits yard sales and estate sales, picking through moldy paperbacks for that one hidden gem that will his hunt worthwhile. We learn what makes a book valuable, including the personal stories of the authors, the publishers, and the journeys these artifacts took.
You might almost come away The Changeling thinking that the timeless value of great books is a rebuke to the constant newness of electronic media—but LaValle subverts even this expectation. Apollo distances himself from worshiping these supposed relics, instead simply learning enough about them to make money. Another huge part of Apollo’s job involves buying books for much less than they’re worth in order to make a big enough profit—something that turns him into a bit of a con artist at times, with all manner of sneaky tricks.
In fact, just like all of the Facebook weirdness and hacked webcams in The Changeling, the rare book trade is just another piece of evidence that anything involving human beings is going to be screwy and not entirely on the level.
By the end of the book, Apollo’s not sure who to trust because he can’t tell who’s been hacked and who’s actually turned against him. Is there even any difference? The latter part of The Changeling drives home how easily technology designed to protect us can turn harmful. And yet, people believe implicitly in the trustworthiness of computers and gadgets, more than they do each other. (This could be interesting to seen explored in a TV version of the book, which might happen now that The Changeling has been optioned by Annapurna for a TV adaptation.)
As Apollo’s friend Patrice observes towards the end of the book, “Our money says ‘In God We Trust,’ but technology is catching up.”
Listing image by Victor LaValle