Max’s Reading Response #6: “Destroyer”

When fear reigns, death and destruction thrive.

Appropriately, destruction is a central theme of LaValle’s “Destroyer.” It is both a motivator and a consequence; a plan and a result. Acts of destruction are a culmination of years, decades, and centuries of fear and hopelessness, and once unleashed, there is very little that can stop their metastasis.

Who is afraid in “Destroyer?” Everyone. A white woman, whose fear of Black people led her to assume Akai, a child carrying a baseball bat, was a grown man with a gun, was afraid. The police, who murdered Akai within seconds of encountering him, were afraid. Dr. Baker was afraid of living without her son and afraid of a system she believed would never deliver justice. The Director was afraid of death. Frankenstein’s monster was afraid Dr. Frankenstein’s bloodline would produce more hopeless creatures like him. Akai was afraid for his parents.

What happened as a result of all that fear? Pure death and destruction. No justice, no resolution. Akai, it appears, will wander like his Frankensteinian ancestor — always an “other”. Always with fingers pointed in his direction.

While the timely social and political messages of “Destroyer” are at the forefront, lingering behind them is a profound pessimism about the role, and perhaps even existence, of modern technology.

Early in “Destroyer,” Frankenstein’s monster is brought up to speed about the technological advancements since his Antarctic exile. The harnessing of electricity and the triumph of manned flight are juxtaposed with the atrocities of chemical and nuclear warfare and factory farming. The development of the iPhone is juxtaposed with the recording of a white police officer shooting an unarmed Black man in his back. With every positive technological step forward, “Destroyer” shows at least one step back.

Frankenstein’s monster also learns about the ideas of artificial intelligence and artificial life, and how those technologies will allow humans to “cheat death” — an idea antithetical to the golem’s goal of ensuring another creature like him will never come into being. The Director, whose goal is to triumph over natural death, is also in direct conflict.

All in all, I had a difficult time enjoying “Destroyer” as a whole. While I appreciated its relevance to current events and had deep sympathy for Akai and Dr. Baker, the whole thing came across as rushed and underdeveloped. LaValle had a ton of really interesting ideas, but it was almost like he was given a particular number of pages he had to fit his story into without being allowed to go over. I wanted to learn more about the explicit motivations behind Frankenstein’s monster’s drive. I wanted to know more about The Director, who had very little dimension.

Finally, LaValle touched on a number of important feminist issues in passing, but he didn’t do enough with them. The instantaneous firing of Dr. Baker when she announced she was pregnant is one example. The statue of Justice, beautifully rendered with Dr. Baker on one end and her husband on the other, with Justice dismissively quipping “she’s so shrill,” is another. In his writing of a character as strong as Dr. Baker — a character whose rage and despair and wrath must be understood for her to be empathized with — LaValle stumbles. It’s easy to have empathy for a mother who lost her child. But it isn’t as simple as that. Dr. Baker wants to burn the entire system to the ground. This, in a vacuum, is the act of a villain — regardless of how devastated she was over her child’s death. A reader needs to see, realize, and understand the specific nature of the injustices experienced not just by Black people in general, but specifically by Black women, living in a white, patriarchal system. I don’t think LaValle was able to adequately capture that.

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