IT’S THE RARE novel that inspires a hip-hop album. But when, in 2003, Victor LaValle published The Ecstatic, a surreal account of an obese schizophrenic, the artist formerly known as Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) named an album after what he called “one of my favorite novels.” LaValle’s earlier work also had an urban, hip hop-ready vibe. His debut, a collection of loosely interwoven short stories titled Slapboxing with Jesus (1999), depicted a set of primarily black Queens residents in the 1980s dealing with abuse, prostitution, rape, and poverty. LaValle, it seems, was poised to be a later-day Ralph Ellison—but instead of Harlem, he would show us the outer boroughs. Comparing him to Colson Whitehead, Black Issues Book Review heralded LaValle as “literary” and “auspicious.”
But LaValle was apparently uncomfortable with the direction his writing was taking him. “I thought I was going to jump in front of a train if I wrote another book like that,” he said in a June 2011 interview, referring to the punishing world his characters inhabited. Where’s a talented young African American novelist to turn to if he wants to escape his status as a truth-teller from the inner city? To monsters, obviously.
“I got to thinking,” said LaValle, “about what could make me feel good about writing, and it really was a monster. A monster would make me feel good and happy.” (When Whitehead was asked about what prompted Zone One, his own monster novel, he told Kurt Anderson of “Studio 360” that “I was in a depressive episode.” After dreaming of zombies, he woke up and said to himself “that’s a real consideration.”)
But what seemed like a break with his previous style—and the literary ghetto where his realism had placed him—might have actually been a continuation. For LaValle, at least, the supernatural is a means to heighten the horrors that have always inspired his work. He had covered terrestrial monsters—traitors, crazies, and pimps—and now he turned to their more mystical incarnations. In Big Machine (2010), black people suffered, but violent celestial beings were added to the ranks of their persecutors. The by-now-familiar cadre of tormented black people was this time corralled by a haughty, quasi-divine “Voice” into joining “The Washburn Library,” a suspect secret society. Oppression didn’t come just from pimps and drug dealers, it was also brought by “The Voice.”
In LaValle’s latest novel, The Devil in Silver, evil is an even more unworldly entity. When the novel begins, Pepper, a white laborer in his forties, is admitted to a mental ward for assault so that his arresting officers can avoid the lengthy paperwork they’d be required to file if they detained him properly. Pepper then sees a devil—the Devil—descending into his room at night, and his fellow psychiatric patients confirm the sighting. Pepper has been unjustly locked away, and the Devil roams his cell.
This set-up follows conventions familiar to anyone who reads thrillers or watches horror films: a likeable everyman finds himself trapped with someone (or something) who wants to do him harm. (See Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Psycho.) It also features many of the touchstones of horror: the haunted house, shackles, and an all-or-nothing climax.
But it is smarter than that genre’s typical fare and seems anxious to maintain a certain degree of literary seriousness. LaValle’s narrative voice resembles the one in his first few books; the linguistic conventions of pulp have not entered his prose. And The Devil includes a series of explicit gestures that refer back to his earlier work. A nurse who buys books for the psychiatric patients is named Josephine Washburn; her small collection is “The Washburn Library.” Like the narrator in The Ecstatic, Pepper is a large, horny professional furniture mover obsessed with his own body. The echoes go beyond the superficial. The Devil obsesses over some of the larger themes that occupy Big Machine: insanity, drugs, and the Angel of Death. The Devil brings up newspapers again, too: inmates clip articles that describe vague deaths, just as members of the (original) Washburn Library clipped articles that described vague phenomena.
All this self-referentiality seems like an attempt to parlay LaValle’s past seriousness into a kind of moral capital while he is working in a traditionally more lowbrow register. LaValle wants it both ways: monsters and moral seriousness. And why not? Some of the most compelling supernatural tales (Frankenstein, Dracula, and—some might argue—the Twilight books) combine these spheres. The Devil in Silver raises moral issues—both specific (treatment of the insane) and general (abuse by malignant authority). When police storm the mental ward and shoot a patient, they do so forty-one times, landing nineteen hits—an overt reference to Amadou Diallo. When an undocumented immigrant in the asylum explains her predicament, she complains about the system: “You don’t get an attorney in immigration court. That’s not your right.”
The question is: does this work? Do the reminders of his literary past and the summoning of contemporary controversy add up to a book with moral heft characteristic of his more realistically gritty books? When the monsters come to life, are they as creepy as the creatures lurking in the neglected corners of the 1980s Queens?
The answer is yes. LaValle uses the thrills of horror to draw attention to timely matters. And he does so without sucking the joy out of the genre. The problem with Whitehead’s Zone One is not that it’s too exciting to be serious. The problem is that it’s mostly boring. Zone One’s cipher of a protagonist suffers from an existential ennui more powerful than the fear that monsters will eat his face; Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse is less exciting than it is depressing.
LaValle, on the other hand, keeps his story taught and compelling. Though The Devil’s plot occasionally wanders—when Pepper’s friend is shot, Pepper finds love; when that relationship ends, Pepper gets to fight the Devil—Pepper is a vivid character. LaValle has crossed the thriller with the picaresque; Pepper is an introspective man of action who takes risks in order to fight for his beliefs and pride.
And the writing is insightful. Consider Pepper’s thoughts upon meeting a teenage fellow inmate: “The kid just looked so put together in that high-school high-fashion kind of way, where a fifteen-year old tries to look like a twenty-year old and ends up making herself seem like she’s twelve. He wished he could excuse her from this room, so she could just go out and enjoy the prickly fruits of childhood.” In just two sentences, LaValle evokes the girl’s specific cocky insecurity while touching upon Pepper’s disgust (“high-school high-fashion”), tenderness (“he wished”), and understanding of adolescence’s dangers (“prickly”) and pleasures (“fruits”). Such witty and humane characterization is seductive. We care about these characters.
This may begin to answer the question of why LaValle has turned to monsters. It allows him to broaden his view (and the reader’s sympathies) from the specific pains of the parochial inner city to humanity as a whole. Ironically, fears inspired by monsters may be more recognizable than those inspired by city streets. No one could argue that we have reached a cultural moment that no longer needs news from the inner city. But we probably shouldn’t turn to LaValle to find it. He has, at least temporarily, graduated from literary journalist to become a striking and original American novelist.
Brian Platzer is a writer and teacher in New York City.