Interview: Victor LaValle
The author of four books including Slapboxing with Jesus and last in the magazine in issue 110, Sex, with his memoir ‘Long Distance’, Victor LaValle’s latest novel, The Devil in Silver, tells of New Hyde Psychiatric Hospital in New York, where patients trudge through a drug-induced haze and are visited by night terrors. Here he spoke to John Freeman about why horror is still his first love and the power in renaming your characters.
JF: The mental hospital novel has such a giant ur-text, let’s address it at the start. One Flew Over . . . what do you think of it, and does it need . . . updating?
VLV: I come not to praise Cuckoo’s Nest, but to bury it. It is the most famous novel about mental hospitals but of course it’s really an allegory for the social upheavals the United States would experience in the sixties, the generational conflicts that, by now, are nearly a cliché. But I don’t think America’s conflicts are simply generational now. Instead our battle is between those trapped inside the institutions of modern American life (our economic and political systems in particular) and those who manipulate such institutions for their own profit. Many are miserable, a select few profit from that misery. That new conflict needed a new allegory, so I wrote one.
Have you spent much time in mental hospitals, and how did your experience inform this novel?
I’ve visited hospitals plenty in my lifetime. Some of the people closest to me in the world have been institutionalized, on and off, for decades now. My trips inside, for visiting hours, gave me just the slightest taste for life on the inside. Enough to try to capture the warped nature of institutional life.
The conditions as described in The Devil in Silver are pretty grim. Is it really so bad?
It’s worse! By a pretty big margin. Worse because, at least in my novel, I make room for the possibility of some human triumph. That’s not always what the folks inside such places get to experience. But I was writing a novel, not non-fiction, and I knew that I wanted my book to be about the kind of small-sized heroism that feels enormous in such hopeless places. Because of that I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, just rub the reader’s nose in hardship. There had to be some optimism, too.
I’ve always thought the only places in New York city that are truly diverse were jury duty, the subway, and, well, Subway sandwich shop, but now I must add the mental hospital. Was this an observation of yours or a political statement?
The broad ethnic make up of the hospital population – both staff and patients – had more to do with the fact that I’d set the novel in my hometown, Queens, New York. Still the most diverse slice of land on the planet. Any story set in Queens, if it’s honest, is going to have a diverse cast of characters. But I was also trying to say something about the future of my country: this is what it’s going to look like. Better come to terms with it. The hardships and the victories don’t change, fundamentally, but the colour of the cast is a lot more varied than it used to be.
In your past two books you’ve bled into the horror genre – what do you find in warping the fabric of reality that conventional literary fiction doesn’t allow you to do?
The first reason that my books have merged with horror and the fantastic It’s pretty easy to get dehumanized these days. is that I simply love both genres without reservation. I grew up reading both – though horror was my first true love – and I haven’t stopped since. If anything, I think of the literary genre as the later addition to my repertoire. By blending these genres you could say I get to experience a kind of polyamorous lifestyle. I love all of them and I refuse to choose. It’s an orgy of . . . I’m going to quit with this analogy now.
In the novel, we never know characters’ true names until they either leave or die . . . do you think the infrastructure of mental illness is inherently dehumanizing?
My reason for keeping the real names of each character unknown until the end is that I wanted the reader to know each one in a certain way, and to use the nickname associated with that persona. To think those nicknames were all there was to them. So the main character’s nickname is Pepper and that’s what he’s called almost all the way through the book. But during a phone call with his aged mother we hear her use his real name and the moment offers a surprising tenderness because of how long it’s taken us to find that name out. I hoped that each time a character’s name was revealed it would serve to realign the reader’s understanding of her or him. That it would jolt the reader into remembering that this was a human being, and not simply a patient or a nurse or an orderly, but a substantial human being that they’d been reading about. It’s easy to forget that basic fact about so many of us now, not just those in mental institutions. These days we might be better known by our Twitter handles or email accounts. It’s pretty easy to get dehumanized these days. ■
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle is published by Spiegel & Grau.