"Tour de Force Novel offers new Hero for Literary Hall of Fame"
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Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Pub. Date: November 2002
I used to ask my mother on occasion, especially when our conversation turned
to one of our relatives, "Do crazy people know they're crazy?" She would pause,
exhale, and then change the subject. I was reminded of my insanity question when
I read Victor LaValle's debut, The Ecstatic, a novel that explores the life of
23-year-old Anthony James, who is suffering from both the onset of mental
illness, and from the overbearing attention of his family. The novel is a tour
de force that is lyrical, humorous, challenging and disarming.
The novel begins when Anthony recounts the day when, naked, overweight and unwashed, he answered a knock on his apartment door, to find his mother, grandmother, and 13 year-old sister standing on his threshold. Anthony had begun to exhibit symptoms of the same psychosis that affected his mother and uncle, and the women had come to take Anthony away. But instead of sending him to a mental health institution or professional, they chose to take him home. Thus, The Ecstatic observes the deterioration of a young man's mind accompanied by the loving and strange dynamics of a family.
Anthony James is an unforgettable character. He possessed a depth and jagged edges that fascinated me. LaValle created, and then exposed all of the components of Anthony's soul, as well as the loose change and dust bunnies left at the bottom of his mind. Anthony was infused with honesty, intelligence, and a wonderful sense of humor -- witty as all get out. He rightfully sits alongside Janie Crawford, Bigger Thomas, Scarlett O'Hara, and Holden Caulfield, characters who are so large and grand they live beyond the confines of the book.
I was into Anthony and I didn't realize how unstable he truly was because I found him so endearing. I liked him so much I started making excuses for him. On Anthony's penchant for walking around naked: I would say, "He's hot" or "He's a nudist", or "Maybe baby boy has high blood pressure". On Anthony wearing suits all day, no matter the occasion: I would say, "Well, Booker T. Washington wore suits and ties everyday too, and nobody was callin' him crazy" (some folk did, but it wasn't because of his clothes), or "Ain't nuthin' wrong with wanting to look presentable". After several chapters I was ready to admit that Anthony was a little Michael Jackson eccentric, but not Daffy Duck Looney Tunes. However by the end of the book, I knew that Anthony's cheese had, indeed, fallen off his cracker. I almost did not recognize it. It's alarming how insidious the onset of insanity can be.
LaValle has the remarkable voices of a poet, a storyteller, and a smart ass. Using Anthony's interior world, slightly skewed family, and neighborhood as his palette, LaValle painted a vivid picture of society's reaction to, and treatment of mental illness and obesity. This portrait was filtered through the prisms of race, sarcasm, and infectious humor. LaValle is effectively holding a mirror to our collective face, and is laughing at the hypocrisy and upholding the beauty. The Ecstatic moved and flowed as if borne of the lips of an emotional jazz singer -- melodic, pitch perfect, and hurting.
The Ecstatic is grand literature, a human comedy that mixes the tragic with the absurd, the ironic with the profound, heartbreak with belly-slapping laughter. The Ecstatic is the heart-wrenching, intellectually stimulating journey of a character proudly walking into the dark corners of his mind and accepting what he may find there.