The Devil in Silver: A Review
My first book of 2013 was Victor Lavalle’s novel, The Devil in Silver, about a man, Pepper, who is committed (despite his apparent sanity) to the mental wing of New Hyde Hospital in Queens. Once there, he finds that the hospital is haunted (or maybe just terrorized) by a half-man, half-bison monster, kindly referred to as the Devil by Pepper’s fellow patients.
Thematically, the storyline of the bison-man and Pepper’s supposed sanity in the hospital brings up questions of what makes one sane or insane. From his first day on the ward, Pepper is drugged, and he is often disciplined harshly for trying to assert his sanity (proof, to the staff, that he is insane). Between the drugs and being surrounded by the mentally ill, and being isolated from the mentally healthy, we see Pepper’s behavior start to change and his perspective shifts so that you wonder if he was always a little nutty, or if his time on the ward has driven him insane. Episodes of the bison-man’s attacks on New Hyde’s patients push you to wonder if what is being described on the page is what’s actually happening or if you’re actually seeing, as Pepper puts it, a “mass delusion.” In which case, you wonder what’s really going on. Is this book science fiction, you wonder, or social commentary, or a description of what it’s like to be committed, or a combination of the three? There’s also a lot of room to consider each characters’ opinion of his or her own insanity; their self-perception as opposed to others’ perception of them, especially where it applies to insanity.
One of the big themes of the novel is the sense of camaraderie on the ward, with the patients looking after each other and working together as best they can to defeat a common enemy; part of the drama of the novel comes with Pepper’s refusal to fully band together with his fellow patients, despite the fact that he is in the same predicament that they are. Part of this refusal comes from his unwillingness to engage in any activity that makes him seem like he belongs in the hospital, his determination to retain his separateness from the people who live at New Hyde. The longer Pepper stays on the ward, however, the more he engages with his fellow patients. He sees their humanity, their complexity. He learns to appreciate that they are troubled in many ways, but that they still have something to offer.
-Lavalle also shows a lot of sympathy for the people who run the hospital — something that one doesn’t always see in literary representations of mental hospitals, which often have an us-versus-them feel about them. Lavalle allows the staff’s characters to develop. He explains their attitudes (and prejudices) toward their patients, so they can be viewed as people rather than oppressors. The nurses, doctors, and orderlies in the novel seem to behave badly mostly out of frustration with a system that is underfunded, overworked, and unappreciated.
Really, The Devil in Silver is Pepper’s journey into empathy for the mentally ill. The book establishes this with its own remarkable tone of empathy for mental patients, who are often left unheard, uncared for, and misunderstood in a system that, at least according to the book, is more interested in containing them than it is in treating them. At least partially, this empathy must come from Lavalle’s own experiences with mentally ill relatives, as does the interest in letting readers see the world that the mentally ill are forced to inhabit.
The narrator of the novel draws attention to himself, often inserting asides and opinions. He is omniscient but focuses on the protagonist, Pepper. The narrator seems a bit obsessed with racism, and has a tendency to go on little rants that sound both preachy and off-topic. Most of the narrator’s asides, however, illuminate attitudes of those on the outside toward mental illness or attempt to illuminate for the reader bits of the bureaucratic labyrinth of public mental hospitals, so on the whole they are functional in terms of the overall narrative.
The tone of the novel is casual, with a strong sense of humor. The humor of the novel caught me a bit off-guard at first, both because I am not used to reading novels with a sense of humor and because I expected the topic to command a certain seriousness. This is a big problem with my writing, too– I get super-serious and forget that life is not all drama all the time. The humor was well-placed, however, and I think I learned a little bit about not bogging the reader down with hard truth after hard truth. Lavalle’s narrator’s joking inserts give a lightness to the heavy subject of mental illness and provided the reader with some much-needed breathing room between episodes of terrror and despair.
The figurative language in the novel often borders on, or just tumbles into the realm of the cliché and the prose can be a little clunky at times — sentence fragments that don’t always work, or are jarring in places where jarring language isn’t called for — but it’s a minor complaint about a novel that I found to be enlightening, engrossing, exciting, and, by the end, uplifting.
If all the books I read this year are as good as The Devil in Silver, I will be a very, very happy reader.