Thursday, July 11, 2013

Welcome to the Psych Ward

The Devil in Silver
I first heard about Victor Lavalle during last year's A More Diverse Universe blog tour.  I'm not sure how I decided on The Devil in Silver as the first book by him that I would read.  I don't ever read horror novels, which is how this is marketed, and I also don't read many books about mental illness.  But somehow, this is the one I chose.

I would not describe The Devil in Silver as a horror novel, though there are many horrific things that happen.  It all begins when Pepper, a middle-aged man from Queens, gets into a fight with some plains-clothes police officers who don't want to deal with writing him up.  So instead, they take him to New Hyde Hospital and have him involuntarily checked into the psychiatric ward for a three-day period.  Pepper is greeted by Dorrie, a cheerful old woman who has lived in the hospital for years and years.  His roommate, Kofi (whom everyone calls Coffee), greets him by demanding quarters.  And everyone else he meets - from the orderlies to the nurses to the other patients - is just as quirky a character.

Pepper's stay at New Hyde lasts much longer than three days.  Through his eyes, we learn so much.  The way that sane people think that they are more human than the mentally ill, and how that can have devastating effects on treatment.  How corruption can rot a hospital that was created to do good.  How a person can lose his empathy slowly but surely without even realizing it, until one day he sees a patient struggling against physical restraints and is not bothered by it.  How people are overmedicated to keep them quiet, so that they have no idea what is happening to them and they become more isolated from those around them.

It's scary stuff.  I've never read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I imagine it to be a similar indictment against the way that our society handles mental illness and those who suffer from it.

There is a monster at the crux of this story.  A huge, terrifying animal with horns and hot breath who makes his way through the hospital and hurts the residents.  When patients complain about him, they're ignored.  But they know he exists, and they want to beat him, so they band together with Pepper as a leader.  This quest to defeat a monster is obviously symbolic on all sorts of levels, as you can imagine - is he really a monster or is he human?  Is it possible to have sympathy for someone that frightens you?  How much of a problem is in your head and how much of it exists for everyone?  It may be heavily symbolic, but the issues raised are still valid.

I admit that this book will not make my list of favorites for the year.  I did it on audio and there were at least three times when I thought the book was about to end, only to realize that there was still a long way to go.  There's a lot that happens that seems final, and then more happens.  I didn't really like that feeling of never-ending, though I suppose if you are doped up on medication and have no hope of leaving a mental hospital, that's probably what life feels like.

What I did like about this book were the relationships between some of the characters.  There were so many unique and bizarre characters populating this book, as you might imagine.  But somehow, in the course of Pepper's stay at New Hyde, each one becomes more human and easier to understand.  Kofi and his quest to find someone in authority to whom he can complain about the horrors of life at New Hyde.  Louchie only learning about independence and going after what she wants after she gets to know Pepper better, even as she is fiercely loyal to her mother.  And Sue, the Chinese illegal immigrant with whom Pepper bonds over Vincent Van Gogh.

There is a lot to enjoy about this book if you are in the right mindset, but I don't think I was and I'm not sure I ever would be.  While the ending feels hopeful, it also has a feeling of resignation and acceptance to it that I found very sad.  And while so many of the characters were memorable and wonderful, there were others that were not, and the commentary on the situation was just so bleak.  The more I read about mental illness, the more upset by it I become - there really does not seem to be a very good way to treat it, and so people either ignore it or treat the symptoms, not the root.  It makes for heavy going on the morning commute, and it took me weeks to get through this one.  I do think I'll try Lavalle again because he has an engaging style and can write a quality character.  But I'll just make sure to choose a book that fits my reading tastes a little better.

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