The Devil in Silver, or, Randle McMurphy Grows Up A Little


The most enjoyable novels flirt with their weaknesses openly, forcing you to confront their arrhythmias until a) you're Stockholm Syndrome-d into acceptance or b) you cease to notice them, as the mosquito bite turns from a sharp pain to an ongoing itch.

It's been a while since I've read a novel as weirdly imperfect as The Devil in Silver. LaValle's tale of a man stuck in a mental institution (rightly or wrongly, we're never quite sure) pays tribute to its antecedents and builds upon them. He carefully constructs the institution as a real place that we can navigate in our heads, which only adds to our empathetic sense of entrapment.

Unlike one Randle McMurphy, Pepper's not the King of this castle; he's a prisoner in a rundown hospital that feels like a dystopian space station, where visions of sterility become marred by the filthiest barbed wire. It comes as no surprise that here there be monsters.

72 hours more, he repeats, ad infinitum, just 72 hours.

Time passes in strange ways and characters move in and out, though most live on past their brief appearances. Each of Pepper's institution-mates come heartbreakingly to life.they don't exist merely to justify his existence; their hopes and disappointments are real.

And yet. And yet. As I mentioned, LaValle crafts a wire straight to our empathy sensors. But he lacks confidence in his craft. At some point in the novel, he starts to include interludes from news articles on institutional abuses and other horrors. He's unsatisfied with the visceral power of the story, and hits us over the head. Luckily, these interludes are easy to ignore. And even while they leave our heads scratching, they highlight the success of the rest of the novel.

The Devil in Silver's the first novel I've read in some time that makes spending time inside the head of a middle-aged white man seem worth it. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that Lavalle is only one of those things.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

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