Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review of the The Devil in Silver

The fundamental metaphor of The Devil in Silver is pretty easy to grasp. Pepper, the protagonist, is brought to the New Hyde mental institution not because he demonstrated a mental illness or implied he was a risk to himself and others, but because the plain-clothed cops who arrested him didn't want to deal with the paperwork of formally booking him. Though Lavalle doesn't articulate the idea directly until two-thirds of the way through the book, it's clear that we are supposed to understand life (or maybe society, fine line for social animals) as an asylum we can't escape from.

In another writer's hands, this metaphor might have induced eye-rolls, but throughout the course of the book, Lavalle reveals, deepens, plays with, and complicates that image. For example, in the beginning of the book, Pepper spends a lot of time thinking about Marie, a woman he hoped to have a relationship with, but after a while at New Hyde, after he began to adapt, Marie might as well not exist. So, yes, all the world is an asylum we can't leave, but we also have an amazing capacity to adapt to whatever our situation is, to join what surrounds us. Another; the staff at New Hyde are overworked, underpaid, and don't have nearly the resources they need to provide the care that is asked of them, yet, they still control the lives of the patients. Through this relationship, and in the context of the guiding metaphor, Lavalle explores how differences in power, even amongst the powerless, create antagonistic relationships. When one group can make the other take sedatives, there is going to be an “us and them,” relationship. And, whether it's a middle school or a corporation a group with over a certain number of members is going to fracture into tribes and cliques and so, after he comes out of his initial drug addled semi-coma, Pepper aligns himself with Dottie, the matriarch of New Hyde, Loochie, a teenager who compulsively pulls out her hair, and Coffee, an African immigrant who thinks if he can just call President Obama, all their problems will be solved.

And haunting New Hyde, is The Devil. The first time we see The Devil, it drops into Pepper's room from a hole in the ceiling and nearly pummels Pepper to death. Later on we get a good look at it. It's described as having the head of a bison on top of the body of an old man. Despite the fact that The Devil actually kills residents of New Hyde, the staff accepts its presence.  They even throw a blanket over its shoulders and guide it gently out of the room when they save Pepper. The actual term “the devil in silver,” refers not directly to this Devil who lived behind a silver door, but to the hallucinations seen by silver miners induced by the poisonous fumes created by, well, silver mining.

Much like the overarching metaphor of “World as Asylum” Lavalle's Devil is a risky image. No “explanation,” for the character will be satisfying. But Lavalle is able to provide conclusion for the character without restricting how we interpret it, not by foisting some kind of artificial ambiguity over the character, but by creating an environment, a plot, and a group of characters, that provide a range of understandings of the big reveal.

Victor Lavalle has a unique style. Even though I knew from The Big Machine how deep and intelligent of a writer he is, the depth and intelligence of The Devil in Silver still took me by surprise. He has a direct, conversational prose style, but he doesn't write with the ponderous simplicity that is so often considered (and too often lauded as) “accessible.” Wisdom just rises from his work like steam from the sewers.

In this way, Lavalle is, more than any one else I've read, the true heir to Kurt Vonnegut. The weirdness of Lavalle's (and Vonnegut's) work doesn't come from a commitment to the fantastic, but to the realistic, not from an obsession with the strange, but from a quest for the mundane. Often, the only way to understand reality is through surrogates; plots, characters, and settings totally different from anything that happens or can happen in reality, but that provide us a connection from distance that helps us understand what we see every day. For example, the residents' (inmates') conflict with the Devil, and Pepper's leadership role in that, perfectly maps out the tangle of ethical questions and assumptions knotted around treating mental illness with medication, but that all doesn't come together until one, succinct, and stunning moment. It takes a battle with a marauding old guy with a bison's head to get there, but the truth Lavalle reveals is more powerful and more meaningful from the course we took to get there.

This just scratches the surface of the themes and ideas explored by Lavalle through the residents of New Hyde. Race, class, immigration, law enforcement, sex, the paradox of know-it-alls through the life of a rat; Lavalle even sneaks in a Ulysses reference. But, taken with Big Machine, Victor Lavalle's greatest talent, which connects him again with Vonnegut, might be his heroes. With “anti-heroes,” pretty much the only heroes we read and see anymore, and with traditional heroes as stale, lifeless, and unrealistic as they were when artists first created anti-heroes, we've entered an era of protagonists. For better or worse, we no longer have heroes, just characters the book happens to be about. But Ricky Rice, from The Big Machine, and Pepper, from The Devil in Silver, are different.  They have quests.  They have flaws.  They try their best.  They make mistakes.  They want to save the world and they are heroes. And, in the world of books, so is Victor Lavalle.

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