I first read Victor LaValle (Big Machine) many years back, and since then, I’ve been aware of LaValle as an important contemporary American writer worth watching. When I saw The Changeling at Walden Pond Books in Oakland several months ago, and when I read the assorted blurbs on its dust jacket, I couldn’t wait to dive in. Here are some of the things that were stated in the blurbs: “The Changeling is a mesmerizing, monumental work,” says Marlon James. “[T]his genre-defying, achingly literate phantasmagoria of a novel will work every nook and cranny of the imagination,” says Paul Beatty. “I say this without exaggeration: It’s a masterpiece,” says Mat Johnson.
Now, I’ll say this before I proffer my opinion here. I enjoyed reading The Changeling. I found it pretty riveting; I tore through it in fifty or sixty page chunks, and looked forward to reading it each night before bed and each morning before work. It was, in various ways, good.
However, I can’t help but state that it struck me as also kind of cheesy and definitely not, in my opinion, worthy of the praise that appears to have been lavished upon it by its blurbers. When I picked it up at the bookstore, I was quite excited about the serious work of fiction that I was about to devour, but I found myself not disappointed by the book itself, but disappointed relative to the intense level of expectation that its blurbs had given me.
The novel is about a young black man in Harlem, who meets, courts and marries the woman of his dreams, and then has a baby, to whom something absolutely horrible happens, prompting a kind of modern, urban fairy-tale adventure-quest. Lest I spoil anything, I won’t say much more specifically, but the novel definitely contains various fantastic, horror-ish elements, and I’m not opposed to these in general, but I did notice that LaValle’s writing style here is notably devoid of poetic embellishment.
But more to my point here. Blurbs are misleading. This isn’t a new point, obviously, as writers and their agents often jockey for well-respected writers to blurb the book they’re producing, and because publishers frequently cherry-pick quotes from reviews to include in the blurbs they print on dust jackets. In this case, though, perhaps because the blurbs for The Changeling were from writers who I greatly admire and respect, and perhaps because the statements included in the blurbs were so overwhelmingly gushing, I felt particularly misled.
Maybe I was way off in my reading of this novel, and perhaps my novice eye failed to appreciate some profound brilliance. But I’m a fairly seasoned reader, so I just don’t know. Not halfway through The Changeling, though I was undoubtedly enjoying the book, I found myself flipping to the back of the dust jacket, reading the blurbs again, and thinking, Really? Seriously?
Andy Weir’s The Martian, for example, was a totally fun read, deserving of all the hype and excitement that it garnered, but under no circumstances should any writer or fan of serious literary fiction praise it as great, groundbreaking literature. Andy Weir is no Michael Chabon, and The Changeling is no Underground Railroad. Read it, enjoy it, but let’s keep it in perspective.