...read the book intensively page for page, loved every moment, and penned a 1500 word book review for seeingblack.com....voila!
LaValle's Big Machine
By Sidik Fofana--SeeingBlack.com Literature Editor
With his first novel in seven years, Victor LaValle takes a dip in the noir side of the literary pool. Big Machine is written through the eyes of a heroin-addicted former janitor who follows some cryptic notes to a secret society in New England in 2002. This is the cult-following, paranormal story that his first two works were afraid to be. It dives off the familiar plank of African-American fiction to where hardened Queens dwellers meet underground mutants.
Black fiction has never been the most elastic genre but Victor LaValle—whose first collection of short stories, Slapboxin’ With Jesus, was a tightrope fall away from the urban fiction category—has certainly complicated things with his clash of street lit and phantasmagoria. LaValle faithfuls may expect Big Machine to be like his old tales of concrete, grit and despair but his book makes that familiar New York element a mere sideshow to the deep woods and sloshy sewers that dominate this novel. Also, readers may be surprised to find much more magical realism and outright absurdity than existed in the terse, unsentimental Slapboxin’ With Jesus or The Ecstatic.
With that said, our unlikely hero, Ricky Rice, becomes an “unlikely scholar” who spends his days in solitary investigation, leafing through obscure newspaper clippings for signs of God’s communication. The office, known as the Washburn Library, is located in Vermont (though LaValle hints that it might as well be situated the universal West Bum--, USA) in the Northeast kingdom, which is predictably surrounded by cabins, pickup trucks, redwoods, and only seven Black people.
Rice and these six other Black people, plucked from their former lives of anonymous deterioration, are introduced to the Dean with his “big jug ears and skin the color and texture of chunky peanut butter.” The dean further jumbles his guests’ already blurry understanding of why they are there, which Rice later finds out is to locate any evidence that points to origins of the society’s founding father Judah Washburn. Rice researches, then gets sent with another scholar, Adele Henry, to find Solomon Clay, the Washburn Library’s bad seed who has resorted to terrorist plots to blow up the Bay Area of California via suicide bombers. Their investigations lead them through the streets of San Francisco, a murky sewer, a train platform in Manhattan, and an emergency room—where the absurdity peaks and Rice discovers he’s pregnant with a parasitical egg. A murder plot also figures into the story.
Big Machine rewards us with deposits of lasso-tossing action that initialize at the right time. The novel lets free a ping-pong of drama and flashback, which conspire to heighten Rice’s culminating feat. The reader does not have to bulldoze through cryptic subplots or dig up the climax’s hidden tributaries; one of the book’s positive traits is that the Washerwomen story and the main plot alternate chapters and spare readers the hassle of unveiling veiled themes for the sake of erudition. LaValle does not seem concerned with the pretentious graphics of complex plot webbery.
Heroism is a by-product of fantastical literature, which leases realistic protagonists for comic book type adventures. Just the fact that Rice is a hardened Queens native transposed onto an unlikely New England environment cues the bizarre dilemmas that he will face throughout the novel. As a matter of fact, the locations in which Rice often find himself come to represent the anti-New York City: the snail-paced Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the outdated Garland, California to name a couple. Still, the ultimate theme is not urban alienation because unorthodox elements like swampy sewers and inner city cults are also thrown in the mix.
LaValle creates a scavenger hunt of American cities, inaugurated by Garland and sustained by a trail of clues that connect seemingly disconnected places. It’s an underground world where people like the venomous Solomon Clay roam like serial conspirators who hatch plots just for the sake of pure discord. This anarchical world of religious fervor has hopelessly steered its subjects from sanity. As LaValle flip flops between Solomon Clay’s zealotry and the tragic story of the Washerwomen, he seizes the opportunity to remind us—via his main character--how religious enrapture is mostly a byproduct of convincing passion. “They stood there grappling, foreheads pressed against each other, two sisters, a lion and an ox,” Rice says of the Washerwomen. “They seemed to shine like beast of prophecy, their vitality more persuasive than any words. That’s why we believed.”
The Big Machine, from which the novel derives its title, is doubt, which serves as religious possession’s antidote or nemesis, depending on how one looks at it. It is this weapon of mistrust that drives Rice beyond a face value analysis of documents at the Washburn Library, transports him to a true understanding of the unhealthy though mesmeric energy of the Washerwoman, and motivates him to capture the demagogue Solomon Clay. The ghosts of such cults as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas and Heaven’s Gate in San Diego, California loom over the novel, partly because they’ve become reference points in any discussion about religious fanaticism, but mostly because LaValle feeds on our guilty curiosity about how such religious obsessions form, ripen, and ultimately dismantle. These groups are perhaps the prime paradigms for the big machine of doubt, ephemeral constellations of intense faith and blind worship.
The novel’s super heroine is Adele Henry, a fellow field agent and former prostitute whose determination to fulfill the work of Washburn equals if not surpasses Rice’s in vigor, adding to it a femme-fatale touch. If the Branch Davidian cult represents misdirected religious energy, Adele (whose loyalty towards research eventually supplants her loyalty toward drinking) shows how a concentrated mission can yield positive results. Adele’s bitchy approach (she would take the epithet as a compliment) to uncovering Clay’s tracks emerges not only as a weird yet productive expression of feminism, but also as a serious turn-on for Ricky Rice.
Such are some the tensions that float around in Big Machine. It is ultimately up to the reader to decide whether the novel’s hammerhead theme is religious condemnation, urban versus rural transfusion, a tour of American cities or kick-ass feminism. If such weighty ideas fail, LaVallecan almost always rely on his entertainment value. Throughout LaValle’s writing career, he has proven he can engage readers through sheer plot. Thus, Big Machine stays afloat with the same mechanisms that made The Ecstatic a critical success. LaValle’s latest endeavor plays on a market that caters to inner city voyeurism luring a certain bracket of readers into a curiosity about how ghettos function in America. This novel is a twisted literary version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” except that the hillbillies, in this sense, are minority urbanites and the alienation those country bumpkins felt in California is the alienation that these urbanites feel anywhere there are not huge skyscrapers and long subway cars offering the cover of anonymity. LaValle seizes moments for social commentary by the throat; it’s no mere coincidence that the unlikely scholars are scraped from the dingy corners of American slums (a la Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and are empowered subsequently to do revolutionary work.
It is easy to view LaValle’s characters as unforgivable stereotypes or, worse, unimaginative defects but Big Machine is not all about where these characters have been so much as it is about how far they’ve come. That’s why as Rice carries a stash of heroin, which weighs more and more on him during times of stress, readers may not find themselves forming panicky suspicions about a relapse. It’s almost to say that Rice wears his street corner resilience as a force field that protects him from any U-turn back into despair.
LaValle takes first person invincibility to a brand new plateau of possibility, one that provides journalistic footnotes on the nature of African-American perseverance. What spares Big Machine from the gory nebula of the civic underworld is its willingness to beat the real and the fantastic into a miracle whip of character development via scattergorical adventurous settings. It’s not so much that Ricky is the protagonist, so much as he becomes the protagonist just like a lucky town fair contestant becomes a winner after a period of bumper car and arcade joystick obstacles. Rice’s complaints, as his journey gets more and more arduous, are really self-realizations that mark the rise of his leadership capacities. “And when I get too puffed up, when I invest too much in my own powers,” he says, “I rely on what the Washerwoman taught me. Doubt grinds up my delusion. It makes me humble. And that’s a gift.”
In LaValle’s newest work, it’s this personal journey that makes us gods and ants at the same time, as we bounce to and fro without conceding power.