Preliminary thoughts on “The Devil in Silver”

If this post has a thesis, it’s this:  I have thoughts about Victor LaValle’s novel, “The Devil in Silver.”  There isn’t much sophistication yet.   I’m 170 pages into the novel (412 pages total), so a lot of my contemplations regarding the novel examine recurring themes and motifs that I’m waiting to see play out over the course of the novel.  For this post, my goals are multifold.  First, I want this post to be a progress point for my work on “The Devil in Silver;” I want to articulate my ideas about the novel so I have a clear record of the ideas I’m working with, and so I can add, revise, and re-articulate these ideas as I get farther into the novel.  I think one of the most challenging aspects of my research thus far has been reinforcing to myself the fact that it’s okay to create posts that don’t articulate fully developed ideas.  I haven’t been open to making posts that demonstrate what I’m thinking at this point—which is the very purpose of this semester’s research.  As a result, the information on my blog in no way represents the volume of research I’ve performed this semester.  In this vein, I hope this post will be a stepping point in the right direction—explaining what I’m thinking, even if my thoughts aren’t complete.  I’m also trying to do a better job of thinking through the novels without my lens of biopolitics and neoliberalism—I don’t want to miss useful information because I’m so focused on one aspect of the story.  Consequently, this post will deal with ideas in which the connection to biopolitics isn’t yet made explicit.

Additionally, I hope to use this post to explain a slight change in direction in my research.  After talking with my thesis adviser, Professor McCoy, I’ve decided to make the work of Victor LaValle the focal point of my research.   All of the work I’ve done so far is still useful—and I’ll still be focusing on neoliberalism and biopolitics—I’m just re-orienting my project a bit.  I’ve decided to focus on LaValle for several reasons:  as Professor McCoy pointed out to me, there has been almost no critical/scholarly work done on LaValle’s work, and accordingly, this creates the opportunity for my research to present some of the very first scholarship on LaValle.  Additionally, I see LaValle’s work as being more engaged with institutions and institutional power than some of the other authors I’m reading, which makes his work fertile ground for exploring neoliberalism and biopolitics.

To begin my attempt to be more open about my thoughts on the project—and less anal about ensuring that I only produce complete ideas—here are my major areas of concern in The Devil in Silver thus far:

1)  I’m noticing that although the novel progresses along a singular narrative that explores Pepper’s intake into a corrupt New York psychiatric hospital, LaValle weaves a sort of hypertext of organizing/foundational stories.  These foundational stories are sometimes intertextualities—the allusions to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jaws, The Letters of Vincent VanGogh—but other times, they are Pepper’s anecdotes, events in the news, historical events, and events in America’s collective memory.  Sometimes these foundational stories locate the novel within a discourse of its subject matter; for instance, when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is discussed, it is to make a comparison between the characters of Cuckoo’s Nest and the characters of “The Devil in Silver.”  When a nurse at New Hyde suggests that the patients may enjoy reading Cuckoo’s Nest, Dorry responds, “why would we want to read a book that barely mentions us except to tell us we’re fucked in the anus?”  Dorry’s reaction suggests that LaValle wishes to resist comparison to the popular novel and film.  The invocation of “Jaws,” on the other hand, reinforces LaValle’s thematic interests:  the boundary between predator and prey, seemingly omnipotent dangers, and the struggle for power.  Other times, the foundational stories are relatively simple—or there is at least a layer of obvious interpretation—for instance, the story of the massacre of American Buffalo very obviously calls attention to and evokes a sense of capitalist expansion.  Other foundational stories, such as the stories surrounding Vincent Van Gogh, play out much more slowly and subtly.  I’m only just starting to get into the significance of Van Gogh.

While the use of intertextuality is a large part of LaValle’s foundational stories in The Devil in Silver, many of the organizational stories arise from the collage of literary forms in the novel.  The novel is at times a history book.  At other times, it is a news report.  And still yet, it often takes the form of a sociopolitical critique that seems more focused on investigating the institution of mental health than examining the experiences of the characters.  As a news report, one narrative that I consider to be a foundational story in the novel is the discussion of the real life controversy of Jim Morrison flashing his penis to 14,000 people at a concert.  Pepper brings up this story as an example of mass delusion; although Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure and many thousand people claim they saw Morrison flash them, the band insists it didn’t actually happen, and not a single picture was developed recording the event.  While Pepper’s invocation of the event is intended as a way to deny the existence of the “Devil” in New Hyde, the story also brings into question topics such as objectivity and epistemology.

2)  I’m also interested in the ecology of information in the novel—or in other words, how form is utilized to present information.  I don’t have much to say about this yet, but I think a lot is going on with genre and how genre is used to present information.  And I think the presentation and internalization of information is important to the novel; LaValle makes a point to highlight the incredible amount of time employees at New Hyde spend “charting,” as well as the difficulties of digitalization and moving information from a print-based medium to a digital medium.  Thinking about the presentation of information as an ecology—in biological terms, the relationship between an organism and its surroundings—may be useful because it allows me to investigate the relationship between the presentation of an object and the object itself.  Which leads me to my next point:

3)  I see LaValle doing a lot of work with linguistics and the signifier/signified; I see strands of a critique of how humans internalize the sound-image used to describe a thing, and the thing itself.  It’s important to note, however, that LaValle’s discussion of the signifier/signified is not motivated solely in a linguistic discussion, but rather it is used as a means to explore a person’s relationship to institutions.

Early in the novel, Pepper contemplates the paintings of beaches and forests on the wall:  “soothing images, by reputation,” Pepper thinks.  But he feels dislocated by these paintings, taken out of his “natural habitat,” and “not just his [habitat], but likely that of nearly every damn person associated with this hospital, from the staff to the patients to the cops who’d brought him in.  So why decorate the walls with someone else’s dream of peace?”  While this isn’t necessarily a critique of the linguistic structures of the signifier/signified, it calls attention to the problematically blurred line between connotations and denotations:  these pictures are supposed to evoke peace, to mean peace—but to who do they mean these things?  The signifier and signified are supposed to be universals to the speakers of a language, but LaValle seems to suggest that the signifier/signified are universal to certain groups of people.

Additionally, The Devil in Silver contemplates the dis/ease surrounding ambiguous identity, or to put it another way, the lack of a clear signifier.  (Dis/ease is a term I came across in a not-so-helpful essay on Fledgling, “The Politics of Addiction and Adaptation:  Dis/Ease Transmission in Octavia E. Butler’s Survivor and Fledgling.”  According to the essay, “Dis/ease” refers to both the sense of people being mentally uncomfortable […] and of people being physically ill” (65).  I should note that in The Devil in Silver, the physical illness of dis/ease is often one forced upon the subject by an institutional power via the way the institution identifies a person, rather than an ontological or phenomenological experience of illness.)  For now, I’m going to focus on one strand of the signifier/signified discourse and how it relates to power in the novel.  In this strand, power emerges from control over identity—or, control over the signifier used to describe the signified.  Pepper experiences extreme dis/ease, in the sense of mental discomfort, because he can’t figure out who in a group of three people is the patient.  He thinks “he should just be able to tell,” and is frustrated that he can’t use the people’s idiosyncrasies as “clues” toward some sort of symptomatology.  The dis/ease Pepper experiences due to his inability to identify the patient ultimately serves to disempower him when he misjudges who the patient is, only to have his teeth knocked out.  Later, however, Dorry gains power over the book club by re-articulating the group’s identity as radically different than the patients in Cuckoo’s Nest.  Power is massively important both in the novel and to my project, so this is a strand that I want to continue investigating.
4)  There’s really no substance to this last point, but in case Victor LaValle somehow stumbles upon this blog, I want him to know that his parody of Tupac’s poem, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete”—in which the poem is parodied to describe Pepper’s “urges”/erection—didn’t slip past me.

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