Outsider Art: A Review of Big Machine
LaValle's characters hail from the margins. Hardly surprising, as the legacy that they fulfill arrives out of America's darkest history. At the center of the novel is the Washburn Library, an institution founded in the 18th century by escaped slave Judah Washburn, deep in the Vermont woods (Vermont having outlawed slavery in 1777). The library's staff of "Unlikely Scholars," Black men and women, all narrowly escaped from lives of crime and addiction, work as paranormal investigators, chasing a sequel to the enigmatic revelation that led Washburn to found his library. The supernatural quests of these detectives, "spiritual X-Men," in one character's derisive description, mask a conflict between secret societies, dueling conspiracies of the oppressed, for control of Washburn's legacy.
Ishmael Reed, acknowledged among the "Black Eccentrics" who made "being a weird black kid" easier for the young LaValle, writes, "beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies." But the secret societies at the center of Big Machine are composed of real outsiders: the poor and working class, the homeless, the addicted and the criminal, those against whom most political and cultural warfare is waged. Big Machine starts with the marginalized and moves further outward, to those even more abject than its protagonists: a man kicked off of a bus into a snowstorm, an invisible army of the homeless, the possibility of redemption conferred by creatures who only inspire horror. The invitation to these most abject, to come back in, gives Big Machine its extraordinary moral and narrative power.
Big Machine weaves the conventions of genre literature with a philosophy of the oppressed. It represents a theological reckoning based on no familiar doctrine with an utter absence of irony. That absence is essential, because the subjects of Big Machine are the earth's most wretched. Big Machine's protagonist, Ricky Rice, introduces himself from the bathroom of the Utica, NY bus station. A janitor, armchair philosopher, and a tenuously recovered heroin addict, Ricky takes refuge in this bathroom when he receives a mysterious envelope: "What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job." Ricky is hiding, not cleaning, on the morning the book begins, because a cryptic message and a bus ticket have summoned Ricky to the Library, where he joins a cohort of Unlikely Scholars: "We were a wild mix of people. Most of us were missing a couple of teeth somewhere in our mouths. Our fingertips showed scars and hardened skin from the years of cradling hot glass pipes." In the Vermont woods, they search local newspapers from across the U.S. for paranormal phenomena. Yet when Ricky succeeds at his search, the Washburn Library is revealed as one of two secret forces battling for control of a mysterious supernatural power. This struggle between secret societies pits the Scholars against the growing power of a demagogue, a rogue scholar and homegrown bin Laden who sends homeless men into acts of horrific, terroristic mass murder.
Mass murder isn't even simple in this book, though, because mass murderers taught Ricky the most profound lessons of his childhood. A "weird kid," Ricky was brought up in a Christian cult known as the Washerwomen, whose leaders massacred their own families. Part MOVE and part gnostics, the Washerwomen are perhaps the first indication that Big Machine's genre markings belie a deadly serious undercurrent. LaValle is a darker fabulist than Reed: Big Machine's struggle between secret societies is a battle between the outsiders and the abject, and even the falsest of prophets dispense wisdom.
No one would call Big Machine realist, yet it is decidedly concerned with economic realities, with how harshly economic circumstances constrain life and ambition. This is a theme LaValle could have learned from Jane Austen as well as Shirley Jackson, or Charles Dickens, or any number of social realists, yet it is frustratingly absent from much contemporary fiction. While saying that Big Machine follows the money might seem like damning with faint praise, in my book it counts as a clear division between literature that is flimsy and ephemeral, and literature with consequence. This attention to the fundamental necessity of American life--cash--makes Big Machine a substantial novel, not just good, but brilliant. In one of many such moments, Ricky laments that his recovery from addiction has obscured any other accomplishment, "Even when I stole and scammed and pulled knives on junior high school children, I still showed up for my shift at the movie theater, the restaurant, the bookstore. I took some pride in that, but it's a small victory, I guess. Certainly nobody else ever noticed."
This skill, sensitivity, and erudition with which LaValle represents the utterly abject makes Big Machine breathtaking. In a landscape of contemporary fiction where realism ignores the essential realities of the everyday, LaValle's attention to persons and details that are usually forgotten positions Big Machine within a literary tradition that demands sympathy for the most despised, whether that's Moll Flanders or Jesse Hexam. Ricky's partner turns out to be a sort of modern Moll. An alcoholic ex-prostitute, horribly tortured as a girl, her history is written on her body even more clearly than Ricky's: "she had these little nicks and bumps on her neck, half a dozen. They were razor scars. The kind you get from fighting, not shaving."
A book that wears its heart, and its genre, on its sleeve, Big Machine is a detective-horror fiction that betrays the influence, not only of an "eccentric" like Reed, but other traffickers in paranoia, suspicion, and mystery: Poe and Kafka, Shirley Jackson, even Flannery O'Connor, all of whom invoke genres and then explode them. As in the work of these past masters, the sensation of horror forces characters and readers into confrontations with profound mysteries. In Big Machine the mystery is both generic and divine, a system of genre conventions and a theological reckoning--one that is, in this instance, unchained from any religious doctrine. That reckoning gives the book its title: "Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men."
Review by Madeleine Monson-Rosen