Before I start talking about Victor LaValle’s beautiful book, a point of housekeeping: Now that an eon has passed, I’ve finally updated my praise and awards page for Jane, Unlimited. I have a bad habit of never getting around to this task until it’s time to start clearing things out for the new book. The nice thing about it is that I get to revisit a book that’s dear to me, years after I’ve stopped thinking about it. Jane is a book that divides readers for sure. I want to thank everyone who got that book and took it into your hearts and brains. If you don’t know about Jane, Unlimited, here’s a quick intro: An orphan named Jane arrives at an island mansion owned by a friend, then quickly starts to get the sense that strange things are afoot there. At a certain point, when Jane needs to make a decision, the book breaks off into five different decisions she could make — and each decision takes her into an adventure in a different genre. There’s a mystery story, a spy story, a horror story, a sci-fi story, and a fantasy. They’re all connected and interwoven; and yes, the multiverse exists :). It’s a weird book and I’m very, very proud of it! If you’re curious, I’ll point you to the NYTBR review, which is concise and generous and does a good job expressing its flavor.
So. Today I want to talk about the craft of using existing, well-known stories to fortify your own story — thus building ready-made narrative magic into your story’s foundations.
Reimagining a classic story is, of course, an age-old tradition. There was a time when I read all the King Arthur retellings I could find, though this list shows me that I missed a great many. Some of my all-time favorite books come from this tradition: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, a retelling of the old Scottish ballad that takes place in a fictional college in Minnesota in the 1970s; Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which I held close to my heart while I was writing Fire and which is based on the Charles Perrault fairy tale Donkeyskin; Ash by Malinda Lo, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Every writer who goes down this path has their own take on whatever story they’re reimagining, disrupting the familiar in their own unique way so that we can get some objective distance and consider the story again in a new light. One of the best things about stories is the way they all change and grow in meaning and significance with every new story that joins the pantheon.
Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is a modern-day, New York City-based retelling of the old changeling folktale. In the classic version of that tale, fairies steal a human baby and replace it with something else, usually a (creepy) fairy child. In LaValle’s retelling, the focus is the emotional journey of the baby’s father, Apollo Kagwa, whose wife Emma Valentine starts acting odd after their baby is born. Horror ensues. In the wake of the horror, Apollo must figure out what the heck just happened, and how to move on.
LaValle’s take on the changeling story is unique in plenty of ways. For example, the way race and gender factor into the power dynamics. The choice to center the point of view around a father. The extreme horrificness of the violence that occurs. The story’s broad-ranging modern-day New York City settings, from a fancy Manhattan restaurant to Apollo’s home in Washington Heights to an abandoned island in the East River to upscale suburbs and a forest in Queens. These are the sorts of alterations commonly made by writers retelling old stories: time, location, culture, tone. When we know we’re reading a retelling, we expect changes in these categories.
But LaValle does something else too: he infuses this book with many, many stories that aren’t the official story he’s retelling. The Changeling is a book positively swimming in story. And one of this book’s charms is that as a consequence, Apollo spends a lot of the book making mistakes about what story he’s in. LaValle uses stories to illuminate, but also to mislead. I think it makes for a really unique approach to characterization.
It also steers Apollo through a character transformation that I find exquisitely touching, for reasons I’ll try to explain without spoiling the plot too much.
Apollo Kagwa’s father, who disappears before his fourth birthday, is a white man from Syracuse. His mother, Lillian Kagwa, is a Black woman, an immigrant from Uganda, who raises him and who recognizes early on that her son lives and breathes stories. Lillian can’t find enough books to satisfy young Apollo. He also has a mind for business. When Lillian discovers that Apollo has been selling his books after reading them, she helps him establish a used bookselling business. In due course, he grows up to be a rare bookseller.
Unquestionably, this is the story of a man who knows all about stories. As a rare bookseller who spends his time digging through rude and racist people’s basements looking for valuable treasures, Apollo deals in stories. He seeks stories out, recognizes their value, owns them, sells them. He also builds stories around himself as protection and comfort, often repeating to himself, in moments of anxiety or fear, the mantra, I am the god, Apollo. I am the god, Apollo. And he uses stories to comfort and ground himself — particularly Maurice Sendak’s picture book Outside Over There, a changeling tale that Apollo believes his missing father lovingly left for him.
So. Apollo knows stories. And yet, as I said above, as this story plays out, LaValle gives us evidence that Apollo is often wrong about what story he’s in. He admires the wrong people in his life as heroes (for example, his father). He misses the incredibly powerful sorcerers right in front of his eyes: his wife Emma; Emma’s sister, Kim; Emma’s friend, Nichelle; his mother, Lillian. As he moves through the world, he imagines he sees fairy tale traps where there are none, and he misses the huge, important fairy tale turning points, the moments that really matter. The clues are right in front of his face. Sometimes the women in his life even announce them aloud to him, and he still disregards them. Like all of us, the story Apollo tells himself about his own life is flawed and distorted by his own wishes, heartbreaks, assumptions, and biases. Among those biases, by my reading, is the tiniest edge of unconscious condescension to women. Or maybe even that’s going too far; maybe it’s simply that Apollo fails to see and appreciate the women around him fully. He’s a good man. But he doesn’t quite get it.
And yet, Apollo’s story is one of transformation. Over the course of this book, through a great deal of trial and tribulation, Apollo learns to see what story he’s in, who the heroes are, and who has the power to create a safe world for him and his family. And who are these heroes? Ultimately, women. What Apollo learns is that he’s in a story in which he needs to see and respect the intelligence, insight, and power of women. Black women, specifically. By my reading, this is a tale of a well-meaning, vulnerable, flawed man learning feminism.
Maybe you can see why I love it?
And I also love how it’s done. I love the way this book swirls with stories, and the way both the reader and Apollo are moving along on different paths through the stories, trying to understand which of the stories matter to Apollo’s story, and how.
It makes me think in a fresh, new way about how to weave other stories into one’s story, whether one’s story is a retelling, or just a story with narrative influences. There’s no end to the creative approaches to this — but if you’re imbuing your own story with other stories, I do think it’s a good idea to choose a deliberate approach. There’s a danger in trying to use other stories in your story as a shortcut for creating mood and meaning. The author who throws lots of existing stories into a book might create the impression of depth, but you want to make sure it’s not just an impression. You don’t want to use other stories to obscure an empty hole or a weak foundation in your own story, or make it seem like your story has meaning it doesn’t have. I say this as a writer who’s familiar with that moment when, after trying to shoehorn a known story into something I’m writing, I realize I’m being lazy. I’m trying to make someone else’s work do my work. Or maybe I realize that I simply don’t know enough about my own story yet, and I’m using those other stories to obscure that fact from myself.
If you’re alluding to another story in your story, there needs to be a reason. Ask yourself, what structural function are these references performing? What manner of tool are they? What do they accomplish? Why have I chosen the stories I’ve chosen?
There doesn’t need to be a profound or complicated answer, but there needs to be an answer. For example, in Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, Miranda’s favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, for what turn out to be some pretty straightforward textual reasons. In the space of that book, it ends up being a perfect allusion. In the review of Jane, Unlimited I linked to above, the reviewer notes that it turns out there’s a reason Jane wears Doctor Who pajamas. Though I wouldn’t call Jane my most straightforward book, there are some pretty straightforward reasons I dressed her in those pajamas! You can have simple or complicated reasons for referring to other stories in your story. It can be a reason that’s quiet, subtle, and small. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. But you have to link those stories to yours in meaningful ways, and you also have to make sure that your own story is the biggest and most relevant story in the book. If you find yourself trying to create depth in an insubstantial story by borrowing someone else’s story, then I recommend spending some time focusing on the hard work of your own story.
And if, in the process, you find yourself jettisoning some of the references to that other story, or even abandoning that other story altogether? That’s fine too. One of my current works in progress started out as something of a Peter Pan retelling. It’s now come so far from that point that the only remaining allusion is a couple of names — that I’m probably going to change, because the book doesn’t need them anymore. That book needed to grow the way it did. J. M. Barrie’s book was my path in; my story needed to start with his, then diverge. Another example: Earlier in this post, when I explained that Jane, Unlimited is about an orphan named Jane who comes to a mysterious house, maybe you thought of Jane Eyre. In early drafts of that book, I kept trying to work in versions of actual scenes from Jane Eyre. For example, I tried hard to find a place for a scene paralleling the one where Jane almost gets run over by Mr. Rochester in the dark. Eventually, I let all that go. At a certain point, the needs of my story became a lot more important than strengthening allusions to Jane Eyre (or Rebecca, or Winnie the Pooh, or any of the other texts that Jane, Unlimited references). I found a balance with all the allusions — or I hope I did, the reader is free to disagree! — and tried hard to focus on my story, my versions, my point. I think Jane still swims with those other stories, hopefully in ways that create depth, and part of getting to that point was letting some of it go. Often it doesn’t take much to invoke a story that’s part of our cultural consciousness.
To demonstrate that often it doesn’t take much, let’s return to The Changeling. I want to show an example of what I’ve explained about how this book uses stories to elucidate Apollo’s failure to recognize his own story. I’ll focus on one scene that I think encapsulates the skill with which LaValle layers story over story over story — to tell Apollo’s story about misreading his own story. It’s also wonderfully written, so that’ll be fun to talk about too :).
The scene I’m going to look at takes place over the course of Chapters 11 and 12. The setting is a fancy New York restaurant that evokes a fairy tale aura. If you want to read along, you’ll find this scene on pages 41 through 51 in the 2017 Spiegel & Grau hardcover edition. Point of view shifts in this book, but these two chapters are told from Apollo’s point of view.
First, some context: in the scene after this scene, Emma Valentine gives birth to their child. (That’s an incredible scene too! It happens in a stopped A train on its way to Washington Heights!) This means that the scene I’m about to talk about is Apollo’s last chance to understand his own story before everything changes. As I think you know by now, he fails. He barrels into parenthood still unable to see what’s in front of his eyes, and the consequences are catastrophic.
But first, he has dinner at a restaurant! Or rather, he doesn’t have dinner, because the items on the menu are terrifyingly expensive, so he just fills up on bread — but we’ll get to that.
Let’s start with the opening of Chapter 11. We’re on Duane Street, a fancy street in lower Manhattan. Apollo has just been digging through the old, abandoned books of some rude people in Queens. Now he’s meeting Emma and Emma’s friend Nichelle for dinner at Bouley, which is a real New York restaurant. Or rather, it used to be; it closed in 2017, the year this book was published.
Here’s how the chapter starts: “Entering Bouley Restaurant felt like stepping inside a gingerbread house. …. when he opened the door and stepped into the foyer, he found himself surrounded by apples. Shelves had been built into the wall, running as high as the ceiling; rows of fresh red apples and their scent enveloped him. The door to Duane Street shut behind him, and Apollo felt as if he’d stumbled into a small cottage off an overgrown path in a dark wood” (41).
(By the way, if this room sounds too playful, magical, or wonderful to be true — here’s an article that includes a photo of Bouley’s apple entrance: “What’s David Bouley Going to Do With all Those Apples When He Closes His Flagship Restaurant?“)
So. With these opening lines, LaValle accomplishes two things: (1) he fixes a real-life restaurant firmly in the world of fairy tale. And (2) he signals to us what story Apollo thinks he’s in. Because we all know that when Hansel and Gretel step into a cottage off an overgrown path in a dark wood with walls made of gingerbread, cake, and candies, things do not go well for them.
I don’t want to take any of the fairy tale references in this book too literally or drag them out too far. Though LaValle can be pretty explicit sometimes about what he’s referencing, his touch remains light, and I don’t want to beat it to death. But as I said before, Apollo doesn’t eat anything but bread during this dinner. He tells himself it’s because he’s afraid of the bill, but we also know that on some unconscious level, he thinks he’s inside the story of Hansel and Gretel. And if you’re inside that story, you know damn well that it’s not safe to eat the food! Of course, as it turns out, Apollo could eat anything he wants safely, because Nichelle is paying for the dinner. Apollo’s wrong: his story isn’t Hansel and Gretel.
This is a pretty straightforward example of how this skilled writer uses a conscious and deliberate reference to a widely-known story that then shows us that Apollo is a little bit lost inside all the stories of his life. Also, as settings go, this description of the foyer of Bouley is evocative and beautiful. The sentences of this book are eminently readable. It’s something I noticed again and again: despite a fair amount of description, my eyes never glazed over and I never struggled to picture what was being described to me. LaValle doesn’t use flowery language or waste words. He tells you what it looks like and he tells you how Apollo experiences it. And he attaches it to story spaces we already know, spaces that are part of our cultural language of stories, so it feels familiar and right. For me, at this point in the book, it was enjoyable to be a little bit lost with Apollo, because the language was so lush and the setting so fairy-tale familiar; because I myself, sitting outside the story, could go eat something if I got hungry, without worrying about evil witches; and also because I had some grounding that Apollo doesn’t have. Apollo doesn’t know that his own book is called The Changeling. He’s just trying to survive each new story, whatever it turns out to be, as he steps into it.
LaValle does a good job creating sympathy in the reader for Apollo’s mistakes and confusions. Consider Apollo’s experience as he moves further into Bouley: “The dining room’s vaulted ceilings had been laid with eighteen-karat gold leaf sheets, and on top of that a twelve-karat white gold varnish, so the ceiling seemed as supple as suede. The floors were Burgundy stone, overlaid by Persian rugs. If the foyer felt like a woodland cottage and the waiting area a haunted parlor, the dining room became an ancient castle’s great hall.….Apollo felt as if he was trekking through realms rather than rooms. If there had been men in full armor posted as sentries, it wouldn’t have surprised him. And in fact, when the maître d’ reached the right table, there was a queen waiting there. Emma Valentine, too pregnant to stand” (42).
This is one of the dangers of being a story man: If your entire life is steeped in story, you’re going to see those stories everywhere. Surely that makes it confusing to isolate which story is yours?
On the other hand, Apollo totally notices that Emma is a queen — but then he dismisses it. This is another danger of a life steeped in story: you make associations and assume that they’re metaphors. Emma isn’t like a queen. She is a queen — or if not a queen, some other category of extremely powerful and important woman. Maybe one of Apollo’s problems is that he’s so steeped in story that he can’t get hold of what’s real? Or maybe he believes in magic within the context of a story, but he doesn’t believe in magic in real life? Or maybe he lives too much inside stories, and needs to wake up and live his real life?
This is what good layering does. It leaves the reader with lots of fascinating and fun questions!
By the way, Emma has her favorite stories too — and LaValle’s choices for her illuminate her character to anyone who’s paying attention. The most important movie from Emma’s childhood, which she watched repeatedly in her hometown library in Virginia, is a Brazilian movie called Quilombo, “the only movie in the entire library that had black people on the cover. Of course I wanted to watch it!” (28). It’s a movie about the slave uprisings in Brazil, and it “shows tons of Portuguese people getting killed by those slaves” (28). At dinner, Nichelle brings it up: “This girl tried to get me to watch a movie about a slave uprising when I was busy trying to figure out how to marry that boy out of New Edition” (47). While Apollo is worrying about eating the food, LaValle reminds us that Emma is engaged in matters of disruption to major power structures. Ding ding ding! Pay attention, Apollo!
But Apollo is too hungry and anxious to pay attention. The dinner progresses as dinners do. Apollo, not knowing that Nichelle is buying, becomes more and more horrified as Nichelle and Emma order delicacy after delicacy. Nichelle gets roaring drunk. Emma, who rarely sleeps anymore, is drifting, half-asleep in her seat. “Apollo, meanwhile, had ingested nothing but tapwater and the restaurant bread. While the bread tasted magnificent, it wasn’t enough. By dessert, Apollo and Emma had low batteries, but Nichelle seemed wired to a generator” (46).
Near the end of the dinner, Emma leaves the table to find the bathroom. She’s thirty-eight weeks pregnant and “That flan wants to come back up,” she says quietly (47). When she leaves, Nichelle, like any good soothsayer in any good folktale, takes the opportunity to try to tell Apollo what matters.
First, she tells Apollo that “There’s a nude photo of your wife in an art gallery in Amsterdam.” Then she explains that before Emma married Apollo, Emma went to Brazil, where “she had a few adventures” (48). In particular, “Emma met this Dutch photographer down there in Brazil” (49).
Nichelle goes on to explain that one day while the photographer was taking photos in an abandoned factory, he needed to pee, so he left Emma alone with the equipment. And she decided to take a picture of herself, setting up the shot with a timer. “She makes the shot in front of a wall that’s been half torn down so you can see she’s standing inside a man-made building that’s gone to the dogs, but over her right shoulder you can see the forest that surrounds this factory. Two worlds at once. Crumbling civilization and an explosion of the natural world. / “Emma walks into the shot, and just before the shutter clicks, she pulls off her dress and takes that photo nude!”
What’s the photo like? How does Emma look? “Wiry and fierce, naked and unashamed. She’s looking into that camera lens like she can see you, whoever you are, wherever you are. She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen” (50).
So, here’s Nichelle, telling Apollo what he’s glancingly considered before in a fond, condescending sort of way: Emma is a sorceress. Nichelle is saying this to Apollo in simple, straightforward words: Emma is a sorceress, with a great capacity for adventure.
What is Apollo doing during this conversation?
He’s sitting there thinking to himself, “Dutch photographer? / Dutch fucking photographer?” (49)
And when he finally speaks, what does he say?
“‘And the Dutch guy?’ Apollo asked. ‘What was his name?'” (59)
This moment is, of course, the stuff of everyday real life and the stuff of fairy tales. Jealousy and possessiveness, leading to a character’s blunder or misbehavior. In fairy tales, we see jealousy as an archetype — like the queen who decides to destroy the young woman who’s usurped her position as the fairest of them all. In Apollo’s life, it comes across as fairly typical and annoying sexism.
Nichelle’s response to this question contains everything. Everything this book is about; everything that leads to catastrophe, and ultimately to Apollo’s growth and transformation: “Nichelle watched him quietly for seconds. She narrowed her eyes when she spoke. ‘I’m trying to tell you something important, and you are focused on bullshit'” (50).
For just a moment, Apollo gets it. He falls “back into his chair as if Nichelle had kicked him” (51). He tells her he’s ready, he’s finally listening.
And then the maître d’ appears, sprinting across the restaurant, shouting for Apollo, because the baby is coming. Which means that everything is about to change, and it’s too late.
Apollo’s failures in this scene are familiar and understandable, even when they’re annoying. He’s hungry, distracted, and worried about his wife who’s probably vomiting flan in the bathroom. Also, Nichelle is completely, obnoxiously drunk, so why should Apollo recognize the power or truth of her words? Maybe I should clarify that at this point in the book, I didn’t appreciate that Emma was a legit sorceress either. We haven’t learned the stakes yet, and we don’t know how much we’re going to be needing a sorceress later. But more to the point, most of this book is from Apollo’s point of view, and right now Apollo is hungry, distracted, and worried. There are more important things to worry about, or so he thinks. And I care about him. Even though as the reader, I’m better positioned than he is to recognize his mistakes, I’m right there with him.
This all comes down to LaValle’s skilled balancing of story and character. So much comes across in this one scene, and there are so many other equally rich scenes. If you like to sit in that place where spinning stories come together, you should read this book.
I’ll close my study of The Changeling by adding this: I know enough from my own experience as a writer to suspect that while LaValle was writing this book, he wasn’t always certain what story he was writing either. As we write, our story keeps surprising us, interrupting us, frustrating us and sending us off in the wrong direction. But not only did he find his own story (and Apollo’s too), but he did a beautiful job weaving all the other stories in.
If you’re writing something that alludes to other stories, I hope you’ll find LaValle’s use of classic stories exciting, rather than intimidating. When you ask yourself, Why this story?, it’s an opportunity to figure out how far along you are in establishing your own story. If you don’t have an answer yet, maybe you need to be focusing less on the classic story and more on your own story. If you have a few answers, but you’re completely overwhelmed and not sure how many references you should make or where anything is going — take a moment to congratulate yourself, because that sounds to me like progress. When you’re in the middle of writing something, there’s always a sense of overwhelm and confusion about how well you’re balancing things. You have a few potential answers? Great! Soldier on, and after a while, check in again. What’s your story now?
And that’s that. I hope you’ve enjoyed my post about the balance of story in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling!
|Reading like a writer.