*A brief note: my intention is to have two main sections to my essay–what I have posted here is the introduction to the first section. In my final draft, something will definitely come before the summary paragraph (which currently is the first paragraph) but I thought that would be much easier to write once I have everything worked out. I’m planning to have a complete draft of the first section done within the next two weeks. I have a good chunk of it done now, but at the completion of a draft I usually discover a much more logical way to organize the essay, so I’d prefer to present the body of this section in one large chunk to avoid any overly disjointed, incoherent writing. I also expect this section to change quite a bit by the end, as introductions usually do.
I.The Devil in Silver chronicles Pepper’s stay at New Hyde Mental Hospital, a horrendously underfunded psych unit that is home to a monster that the patients call the Devil; the Devil, a patient by the name of Mr. Visserplein, lives at the end of Northwest 4, a hallway of New Hyde, behind the silver door. The Devil regularly escapes from its room—which is more of a holding cell—and violently attacks (and kills) other patients, after which staff members comfortably usher the Devil back to his room. Pepper, a large white man and professional mover, with a penchant for thinking himself a hero in the wrong situations, is brought to New Hyde after getting in a fight with a group of undercover police officers. After causing trouble for the orderlies and nurses, Pepper spends over a month physically restrained in his bed and mentally restrained by tri-daily doses of haldol and lithium. Pepper befriends Dorry, the oldest patient in New Hyde—second to the Devil—a white octogenarian who takes it upon herself to help new admits and patients who can’t help themselves; Coffee, a Ugandan immigrant who spends hundreds of dollars making phone calls to various city officials to report the horrid conditions of New Hyde, and after Pepper convinces him to skip his daily medication, accesses the internet with his mind in order to find “the Black President’s” telephone number; and Loochie, a black teenager who was committed to New Hyde at age 13. After Pepper and several other patients at New Hyde are brutally attacked by the Devil, the four friends attempt a coup of sorts and unlock the silver door in an attempt to kill the Devil. When all is said and done, Coffee is shot and killed by police responding to the coup, and Dorry kills herself because the patients blame her for Coffee’s death. Before killing herself, Dorry bequeaths a map of New Hyde hospital—which went through so much repurposing due to a strict budget that all patient rooms are connected by doors that have been painted over in an attempt to hide. The map includes a back stairwell, hidden by repurposing, that leads to a second floor—identical to the first but unused; from here, the patients access a second silver door on the second floor and attempt to kill the Devil once more. After several patients are killed—both by other patients and by the monster—Pepper helps Loochie escape New Hyde, and returns to save Mr. Visserplein, who Pepper has come to believe is more man than Devil. After another month of haldol and lithium induced stupor, Pepper greets the newest admit, extending the same courtesy first given him by Dorry: the chance to see a friendly face first
As I write this essay, there has yet to be published a piece of scholarly criticism on LaValle’s work. His novels are frequently the focus of newspaper articles, and NPR regularly covers his work—as does Poets & Writers—but within the academic establishment his work has passed unnoticed. The lack of critical attention to LaValle’s work is particularly concerning not least because The Devil in Silver is in conversation with—and at times, clearly a response to—works by Frederick Douglass, Octavia Butler, Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehesi Coates, James Snead, and Suzan-Lori Parks, among other writers and thinkers whose works frequent college classrooms. Consequently, this essay examines how the scholarship of these authors functions as seed-shapes for LaValle’s The Devil in Silver, and how LaValle uses these seed-shapes to examine issues of race, power, and paratext, and how the modes of domination involving race and paratext have evolved in a society in which race is not a legal—or always outwardly social—demarcation of freedom.
Advertised as a horror novel, The Devil in Silver achieves this introspective look at race and paratextual domination not so much by conferring an experience of fear upon its readers, but by examining a particular contemporary cultural fear. In line with conventions of literary monster texts—to name a few, Beowulf, Frankenstein, Dracula, Godzilla, and Jaws—the monster itself is a manifestation of a cultural anxiety; take for instance, the Shark in the novel and film Jaws (an important allusion in the novel): according to Stephen Miller, the shark is a manifestation of the “newly culturally embedded Watergate” scandal (Miller 93). The shark is an uncontrollable danger that threatens to disrupt the “governmental and moneyed interests of Amity” (Miller 93). In order to preserve these “governmental and moneyed interests” town officials “distort reality” to cover up the shark attacks, and when the public becomes aware of this distorted reality, they become cognizant of a decayed symbolic order to the world (Miller 94). A compounded fear is conferred to the reader (or audience) of Jaws by the shark’s hidden ubiquity—its lurking threat that suggests “a similar lapse in the political and moral order” could occur anywhere (Miller 94).
The monster in The Devil in Silver—which relies heavily on the mythology of Jaws, and indeed can be rightly viewed as LaValle’s rearticulation of the Jaws mythos—is not dissimilar in its appraisal of cultural anxieties: the Devil, which has the head of an American bison and the body of a man, at once interrogates the anxieties of repressed cultural memories as well as the distinctly American fear of the intractable subject. The novel stakes out the mythology of the monster for readers as Dorry recounts to Pepper the troubled history of the American Bison, one which has largely been forgotten: Dorry tells Pepper of one particular method of mass slaughter—driving flocks of Bison off cliffs to their deaths below. Accordingly, the Devil gains significance as a symbol of a decayed capitalism—one that once sought to be ruthlessly efficient—that now preys on people (the patients of New Hyde). And the Devil gains an equally rich and troubled mythology due to its location in an American mental health institution: culturally, the American asylum is constructed as a place for people who cannot be controlled (but are not necessarily criminals). The Devil, then, becomes a manifestation and violent reminder of the cultural anxieties that LaValle takes as his seed-shape for examining 21st century America.
The fear of the intractable and anxiety surrounding repressed cultural memories are intricately tied, not to the 1970’s Watergate scandal, but to a 21st century society codified by the postmodern precession of simulacra, neoliberalism, and a troubling post-racial aesthetic. With a critical eye towards the cultural ideology of the Obama era, LaValle examines the burgeoning post-racial aesthetic in America and its dependence on the systemic fungibility of black culture—hence coming into conversation with Coates, Whitehead, and Butler—and interrogates how the repression of cultural memories contributes to this post-racial aesthetic. It is important to note that the role of ghosts in this assessment of cultural repression is fundamental to the second section of this essay, which deals with The Devil in Silver in more theoretical terms by examining how it manipulates the experience of reading. The post-racial aesthetic (and dismissal of black culture) in The Devil in Silver functions in part as an extension of the economic and bureaucratic decay that dominate the machinations of New Hyde, and reveals an emergent paratextual mode of domination in the 21st century: the postmodern precession of simulacra. The potential for simulacra to act as a paratextual mode of domination is established through LaValle’s various forms of semiotic play promulgated by recurring sea motifs that, like the sea, rollick and crash throughout the pages of the novel, each reference bringing to shore a new linguistic formulation of LaValle’s interest in race, class, paratext, and power. As a result, LaValle’s novel establishes news ways of understanding how these phenomena—postmodern aesthetics, post-racial allegories, the phenomenology of mental illness, and economic decay—inform spaces of power and the contemporary human condition. In turn, LaValle’s investigation of the modes of paratextual domination picks up Beth McCoy’s call for “work to be done” examining the “increasingly complicated issues of identity, space, power, and authorship confronting all people in the 21st century” by investigating how a burgeoning post-racial aesthetic in the Obama era enabled the postmodern condition to create new forms of racialized paratextual domination (McCoy 166).