12:09 pm Aug. 22, 20121
“When I came back to Queens, I felt like I was coming back a new man, so to speak.”
Victor LaValle wasn’t speaking of the aftermath of a long voyage, but about his new novel, The Devil In Silver, out yesterday, which returns in its setting to the borough where he set his earlier books The Ecstatic and Slapboxing With Jesus. (LaValle appears tonight to read from the new book and speak with author Kelly Link at Greenlight Bookstore .)
LaValle and I were sitting in a diner near his apartment in Washington Heights last week; the weather that day had alternated between torrential downpours and a more ambiguous haze—an apt image to consider when talking with a writer whose novels follow equally mercurial patterns, whether charting emotionally unstable lives or spaces in which reality itself frays around the edges. His prior novel, Big Machine, follows a survivor of a cult who ends up investigating the paranormal; it took LaValle’s work far from its geographic roots, and into a more pulp-horror-influenced space.
Finishing Big Machine, LaValle explained, “gave me the courage to depart from Queens, from autobiographical Queens. The first two books are very autobiographical and, strictly speaking, pretty realistic stories. But I was tired of that. I wanted to give myself the freedom, but I didn’t think I could do that right away. I had to go to Oakland and Vermont and Cedar Rapids, Iowa to give myself that.”
While his latest is not an overtly realistic tale, it’s far more grounded than its predecessor—no secret organizations, no large-scale demonic infestations. But it is every bit as sinister.
Pepper, The Devil In Silver’s protagonist, finds himself confined within an institution out in Queens, living in a kind of bureaucratic limbo made after he’s arrested. There’s a labyrinthine structure to the building, with more than a few touches of the archetypally Gothic: hidden doors in the wall, mysterious sounds, and an entire wing containing only one patient—a sinister figure with the body of an elderly man, the head of a buffalo, and tendencies towards a particularly visceral strain of murder. And yet the novel’s most unsettling elements are its depiction of broken institutions colliding with one another; in the novel’s second half, LaValle’s narrator occasionally takes the reader to other tragic scenes throughout the city. It’s a distinctly contemporary societal indictment.
After writing vividly from the first person in Slapboxing With Jesus, The Ecstatic, and Big Machine, LaValle opted for a third-person perspective in The Devil In Silver. For both the new novel and Lucretia and the Kroons, a related novella released as an e-book earlier this summer, LaValle created a distinct narrative voice, occasionally interjecting information angrily or wryly over and above the action recounted.
“The narrator’s voice is very opinionated," LaValle told me, "there are all of these parentheticals.” As he tells it, he was concerned that writing from another first-person perspective would risk echoing the voice he had used in Big Machine too closely. LaValle, who teaches fiction writing at Columbia University, notes a tendency among writers of a certain age to “run screaming from the third person.” With this novel, he set out to challenge that.
"Good writers make third person as evocative emotionally and as powerful and intimate as first. I wanted to … recharge the narrative,” he said.
Throughout The Devil in Silver, Pepper and his fellow patients discuss Robert Benchley’s novel Jaws. According to LaValle, its inclusion was inspired by his own first encounter with Benchley’s book.
“I can’t remember the first time I read Jaws; probably in high school,” he said. “Certainly I’d seen the film long before. I picked up the book when I saw it in the library, and I was shocked to see all the stuff about the marriage. It’s so much about adultery; it’s astounding. And it makes so little sense in the context of a thriller about a shark. I feel like those sections are the really personal stuff; I feel like those are the things that Benchley couldn’t cut out. It never left me, the fact that you could have those two things in there.”
LaValle works other fascinating digressions and references into his work: everything from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls to De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising to histories of buffalo hunting and the silver-mining phenomenon that gives this novel its title. There’s also a long section of The Devil in Silver retelling the life story of Vincent Van Gogh. As LaValle tells it, his interest in Van Gogh was sparked during a 2010 visit to Amsterdam along with his wife, writer Emily Raboteau. After visiting the Van Gogh Museum, La Valle sought out a collected edition of Van Gogh’s letters.
“The thing that was revelatory to me in those letters,” he began, and then paused. “One, he’s such a beautiful letter-writer. Two, that he was such a fuck-up. In so many ways, the story of his genius could only be recognizable in the aftermath of his life. If you were close to him in his life, one way or another, he would derail any desire to help him. By being so nuts and argumentative and hard to take. When I started working on this, I thought, well, that’s Pepper, through and through. That’s any number of these people in here—not that they’re going to be great painters, but that their lives contain moments of genius in some sense or another, as I see it, and they won’t be recognized. And this book will try to recognize the genius of day-to-day ways that you try to help people, save people, do good. I’m very earnest about that.”
LaValle and Raboteau recently became parents, and worked out a way to balance parenting and work on their respective books in progress: two-hour stints writing at neighborhood cafés and doughnut shops. Raboteau’s advice to LaValle also resulted in one of the novel’s most jarring images: an early encounter between Pepper and his antagonist in which the latter forces his hand into Pepper’s mouth.
“That action was in the last, last draft,” LaValle said, recalling an earlier version of the same scene with a more hesitant interaction. “My wife is a great reader. She said, ‘Why is he being so gentle? He’s the devil. Why doesn’t he jam his hand in?’ I thought that that seemed a little bit much. She said, ‘Trust me. That would be disgusting.’ And I sat there for a while; whenever I write something, I try to do it.” He mimed the action: the hand slowly working its way into his mouth. “I thought, ‘This is awful.’ I sent it to the editor, and he said, ‘That scene’s done.’”
At a 2010 interview with writer Maud Newton at the time of Big Machine’s paperback release, LaValle spoke about how his recent embrace of the Episcopalian faith had affected the writing of that novel. As our conversation wound down, I asked whether his faith has continued to factor into his work.
“I feel fully Episcopalian again, whatever that means,” he begins. “We go to church semi-regularly; we’re a house of faith and belief.” But as for whether faith played a role in his current novel, he seemed less sure. “For this book, I felt like it doesn’t have very much wrestling with faith in it, but in a way it’s because I wasn’t wrestling in the same way. Now it’s all about wrestling with being a good man and being conscious of the people closest to me—now [that] I have a wife and a son. ”
It’s something that seems to echo a line from The Ecstatic, which might serve as a running theme for much of LaValle’s work: “It’s not that I wanted to discover my manhood, I was going to invent it.” That notion of self-created manhood has its roots early in LaValle’s life, he said.
“My mom and dad split when I was one, back before I can remember. And so... I grew up in Flushing. It’s a very international community, but somehow, half the dads [were absent.] We sort of raised each other, and as I grew older, I realized that was a very bad idea.”
“In my later 20s,” he went on, “I started thinking, you might need to remodel this house, because it’s very poorly constructed.” He had noted earlier in the evening that The Ecstatic had been about “cutting ties” with one’s family, but that The Devil In Silver focused more on the networks—family, friends, communities—that exist around you.
“Doing your own thing is powerful and can be courageous," he said. "But I realized that this had its own power, and I wanted to honor that in this book.” And among visceral horror, wry humor, and moments of despair, he does exactly that.
Victor LaValle appears tonight at Greenlight Bookstore to read from the new book and speak with author Kelly Link. He has a number of other appearances in the coming weeks, including on August 29 at Bookcourt, September 4 at McNally Jackson, September 13 at KGB Bar's Behind the Book Reading Series, September 18 at The Center for Fiction, September 23 at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and September 29 at The Strand.
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