California Literary Review

The Big Machine by Victor LaValle


September 3rd, 2009 at 3:22 pm

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The Big Machine by Victor LaValle
Big Machine: A Novel
by Victor LaValle
Spiegel & Grau, 384 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Souls on Fire…

The Big Machine is what urban fantasy looks like when it’s grown up and the writer isn’t relying on paranormal clichés to flesh out an epic tale of good versus evil. Not that you can pigeon-hole this novel—it’s a dizzying slipstream mashup of genres and memes and tropes and legends wrapped around a cross-cultural love story. This is a story that has depth, richness; a heart and a soul. Above all, it has a soul.

Ricky Rice is a 40-year-old African-American working as a janitor at a Utica bus station when he is summoned to Vermont by a few cryptic words on a Post-it note attached to a bus ticket: “You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it,” Mystified by the message and shamed by the secret guilt he carries, Ricky is no wiser when he finds out he’s one of a half-dozen “Unlikely Scholars” who have been brought to Vermont to work at the Washburn Library. All of the Unlikely Scholars are black, which is significant because the library was endowed by a blind runaway slave named Judah Washburn, who stumbled across a fortune and then was guided across country by a supernatural Voice he never heard again.

The purpose of the Unlikely Scholars’ work is obscure at first, but one of Ricky’s colleagues, a former meth addict named Violet, discovers their calling and shows the others what they need to do and how to build on the work of previous scholars. When the mysterious man they all call “the Dean,” takes Ricky into his confidence and shares a terrible secret about one of the former scholars, Ricky begins a search that will reveal his destiny and the dark heart of faith.

There are mysteries here in both the mundane and the miraculous sense. There is a voice crying out, the Dean says, and we know he means “the Voice,” the same voice that spoke to the Old Testament prophets, the same voice that sent Judah to Vermont with the edict, “Go forth and survive.” This is heady stuff but anchored with real-world moments like Ricky’s reaction to finding a nasty clogged toilet in the Trailways station and having to deal with it before he can depart on his journey to redemption.

This is only Victor LaValle’s second novel (after The Ecstatic and the short-story collection Slapboxing with Jesus), but his voice is fiercely assured and vibrantly original. In fact, Ricky’s time-hopping story feels like the book Anne Rice was trying to write with Angel Time, her novel of a hit man and a guardian angel taking a sort of A Christmas Carol jaunt into a past that becomes prologue.

LaValle’s characters aren’t angels but broken people seeking meaning in signs and portents that only they can decipher; and even then, they see as through a glass, darkly. There are angels here, and they are terrifying in aspect and implacable in their demands. Doing their bidding and following the Voice is not for the faint of heart or the weak of mind. In fact, when some of the scholars hear messages from the Voice that others do not, the consequences are dreadful.

Ricky’s story comes out in bits and pieces and the more we know, the more we like him, which isn’t always easy. When he destroys Violet’s burgeoning crush on him, we are both sympathetic and scornful. When he hooks up with a scholar named Adele, we don’t expect it to work out and we certainly don’t expect them to become, in effect, a pair of avenging angels.

The Big Machine has characters to spare and LaValle gives even the minor ones their moments with a sheer narrative exuberance that makes them come off the page, if only briefly. In fact, he’s so assured, that the information he parcels out offers more insight in half a page than most writers manage in an entire chapter.

Ricky is someone who is in a world of hurt and some of his stories are heart-breaking. Brought up in a religious cult run by three sisters known as “The Washerwomen,” Ricky is haunted by sins large and small. He has done bad things in his life and as the story unfolds, we hear about most of them, including a wrenching anecdote about telling his austere father that his sister Daphne has a little yellow plastic ring in defiance of his ban on personal adornments. When the father forces the girl to melt the ring on the stove, Ricky is horrified and so are we. LaValle understands people like Ricky and people like the homeless outcasts who form the core of a religious uprising that threatens the existence of the Washburn Library and possibly, all humankind.

The revelation that is being preached here feels eerily plausible and Ricky is uniquely suited to understand the psychological underpinning of the sermons addressed to the cult leader’s followers. The message being offered is angry and it is bitter and the man who preaches it feels fully justified in his actions.

Ricky narrates the main portion of the book but his is not the only voice telling the story. There are field notes from other Unlikely Scholars. There are anecdotes told by the Dean. Judah Washburn’s biography is filtered through several different people, including one of his descendents who has a pivotal role to play in the denouement.

There’s a sense of legacy and history here, a feeling that almost makes it seem that LaValle is not inventing his story but chronicling some great saga that already existed and will continue to unfold.

Structurally, the book is a mess. The narrative momentum is broken up by flashbacks and changing points of view and episodic chunks of plot that sometimes try a reader’s patience. But patience is a virtue and that virtue will be rewarded.

“Faith is the big machine,” a character cynically declares at one point, but that’s not LaValle’s view. The Big Machine is a transcendent and provocative book that is wildly original and completely absorbing.

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