The first time I found a copy of Joy Williams’s “The Changeling,” I was 19 and wandering around the public library searching for it — though I wasn’t aware of this yet. It was a few months before summer break and I was on the brink of a spectacular mental breakdown.
This would be unexpected news for everyone, including myself, because I had my life perfectly compartmentalized, my days carefully cut and quartered and neatly wrapped. Every day I went to class and sat in the seats closest to the walls, and ate the same veggie sandwich at the same dining hall at exactly 5:30 PM, alone. I was working three jobs, doing private research with a professor, my GPA was way above average and I was so incredibly numb. Every weekend I would walk 40 minutes to the public library and pick books at random from the shelves — vapid romance novels, epic fantasies, ones that promised to teach me a foreign language in 10 days. And I would let them sit, accusing and untouched, on my desk until they were due back home. Nothing really interested me but I was desperate to find a book to teach me how to feel so I went back again and again.
“The Changeling” became the first book I finished in months.
At surface value, its plot surrounds Pearl, a young alcoholic mother of a baby boy, Sam. She flees her first marriage to run away with Walker, her exciting lover, but ends up a widow in a devastating plane crash that only she survives. Pearl, and a child who looks like Sam but she is convinced is a changeling, a child who is secretly swapped with another in infancy. Pearl and this child begin living with Thomas, Walker’s brother, on an unnamed island inhabited by several adults and a seemingly endless number of children who sometimes seem more animal than human. Pearl finds herself becoming a sort of surrogate mother to these children, a role that she cannot understand. The children appear to love and torment her with equal amounts of fervor, which only hastens her loosening grip on reality and herself. With Sam and the other children of the island, Pearl feels an unbridgeable gap between them and herself as a maternal figure. Every day, Pearl drinks by the pool as the children clamber around her. They enthusiastically ask her questions about herself, the island, the world, but “… she had developed a trick to take herself out of their range … she concentrated, she rose in her mind, she moved of a distance. Her body would lie there, surrounded by the laughing children, but she would be gone. Having knowledge without knowing, her thoughts far away, her body there, but in darkness, stroked by the whispers of summer.”
This novel reads as a sort of fever dream; with each page you are unsure of how much of the narrative is actually based in fact. It is a strange and dizzying landscape, one that captured me as soon as I reached this line — it was as if these were my words, my thoughts, laid out bare on this page:
“She felt that if she could only get interested in and knowledgeable about a kinky subject, for example hockey or sharks, she would be a more contented person. She could not just be fucking all the time. Soon something more would have to happen. Pearl did not feel that she was a real person.”
That summer, just after coming home from college for break, the hole in my chest tore open and I became so sad that it hurt to even breathe. I stopped sleeping and eating, went on hours-long walks every night, just wandering around the woods behind my house in the dark listening to the same playlist on repeat. The bones in my chest and the knobs of bone in my shoulders surfaced, the skin on my face was peeled back so tight it was easy to picture what my bare skull looked like underneath. I looked inhuman. My skin was a gross yellow color, eyes bulging out of their sockets, fingers like claws, jagged spine like scales. I often found myself unable to recognize myself as I casually passed a reflective surface. My mother was distraught and confused as she held this creature, shaking with sobs again over nothing at all, nothing that it could name in any language. Why are you crying? she asked. Let me help you, what’s wrong?
My treatment center was quite far from us but my parents drove me there multiple times a week to get electricity zapped into my brain; it was an hour and a half’s drive across the Tappan Zee bridge, and I remember feeling choked up with rage and self-hatred, overwhelmed with guilt about making my parents have to miss work to drive me to a place that taught me how to feel human, how to do basic tasks that even infants know how to do.
Like clockwork, I started crying as soon as my ass hit the car seat.
I don’t understand, my mother said.
How could you love someone like me? I demanded. I was disgusted by everything about myself. I was coarse and twisted, ugly and helpless.
I don’t know, she answered, But I still do.
At the time, I heard that as “I have to.” Isn’t that what mothers are supposed to do? Provide the kind of love that blinds you, has you reaching into the dark, but stupidly unafraid? I was furious.
How does it make sense to love something you cannot understand?
“The Changeling” doesn’t make sense, but that was just what I needed. Love, fear, violence, joy all blend into an indistinguishable haze. The children quote Dante and plot murder, a boy pulls a length of Christmas lights and star tree topper out of his stomach. A man dreams of “[seizing his lover’s] throat with his jaws (to) worry it with joy until the bones [break] like seeds on his teeth.” Pearl’s vagina is compared to a wound, “the wound that opened again and again. The wound that was never fatal.” This same wound — the one that delivers Sam into the world — allows for them to “fold back the flaps of skin and unfold the baby from her like a bridal gown … her terrible dark wound [that would become] a nest for the flying creatures of the night.”
When my mother was pregnant with me, she had a dream that she was fishing and caught three fish. The three fish were supposed to foretell me and my two sisters. She tells this story whenever she is feeling particularly sentimental.
You were the biggest one, she’d tell me. You were the first and the most beautiful. And you were mine.
At the end of that summer my poor health landed me in the hospital with heart complications. The first night I had to run some tests, including an ultrasound of my chest. The technician smeared cold gel on my skin. In the monitor, my black and white heart stared back at me. It looked like the glassy eye of a fish, swimming around in its fluids.
Senior Arts Editor Jo Chang can be reached at email@example.com
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