Victor LaValle’s second novel, Big Machine, is a portrait of an America where the messianic fringe voices on which it was partially founded have taken over to create a disastrous environment ruled by extremes. I could point to any number of recent timely examples of such a scenario, say the debate over health care, but LaValle wisely aims for long-reaching relevance, creating a reality-based fantasy world that incorporates vast swaths of US history into its folds. Primarily he uses the conventions of a supernatural thriller laced with societal satire and surreal existentialism, a Da Vinci Code for fans of Haruki Murakami and Chappelle’s Show.
The narrator is Ricky Rice, a recovering heroin addict and lanky middle-aged everyman who, when the story opens, is working as a janitor at a bus station in Utica, New York. He has some serious unresolved childhood trauma: his family was part of a cult in New York City that imploded in a suicidal outburst that took the life of his sister. After a lifetime of suffering Ricky seems content to settle with unsuccessful anonymity.
This is immediately shattered when Ricky receives a mysterious summons to travel to remote Vermont where he is initiated into the Unlikely Scholars, a group of black men and women, all outcasts and screw-ups like Ricky, who are recruited by the mysterious and seemingly all powerful Washburn Library organization for their ability to hear the “Voice”, an uncertain deity first heard by the organization’s founder, an escaped slave living on the west coast in the 1700s.
Living in individual cabins in the woods and working during the day at the library, the Unlikely Scholars find some solace in the routine and comfort of their new lifestyle. This portion of the book most closely resembles Murakami, where the hero takes a physical journey to a desolate place that mirrors an inward journey to repair psychic damage before entering back into the outside world. (Well, this portion and a later scene featuring a very Murakami-style mystical cat.)
The Scholars are dubbed the “spiritual X-Men”, a comparison that isn’t made clear until Ricky first leaves the compound and travels to a city outside San Francisco with the tough-minded Gray Lady and they come across Solomon Clay, the Magneto to the Dean’s Professor Xavier. Clay is a fanatic Scholar gone rogue, believing that outcasts that hear the Voice are destined to destroy and take over the world. After Ricky learns that he has been sent to assassinate Clay he starts to question if anybody around him is sane. In what sense is everybody hearing voices?
Here La Valle starts weaving together the plot’s many strands, including multiple flashbacks, to the idea of the big machine. One of the leaders of the New York City cult says, “Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.” Ricky finds himself in thrall to spiritual and intellectual authorities, who are constantly urging him to question every institution except the one they represent, which should be accorded total and blind faith. This puts everyman Ricky in an impossible state, attempting to secure a psychic foundation when the truth is selectively defined. He is repeatedly betrayed by the institutions in his life — religious, familial, and governmental — and so is, LaValle implies, American society at large.
LaValle tracks the lethal and tragic consequences of such institutional failures in the terrorist activity of Clay and the decimated lives of Ricky and the other Scholars. But Ricky is a funny cynic, and LaValle has fun poking fun at the absurdities of the superstitious self-importance of religious extremists. When Ricky realizes the shoddy finances of the Washburn Library he quips, “We faced the extraordinary armed with the subpar.” Later he discovers the Time-Life Mystery of the Unknown series sitting on a library shelf as serious reference books.
With Ricky’s voice, LaValle strives to entertain as much as probe the national psyche. To this end the author also successfully uses the structure of the mass paperback thriller — short chapters, constant page turning cliffhangers, convenient coincidences — to forward the plot and fuse his many structural and thematic strands. He is very good at balancing the immediate conflicts of the page turner while stoking underlying tensions for unexpected payoffs, such as the questionable legitimacy of the Washburn Library.
But the conventions of the supernatural thriller and the role it plays towards the closing of the book seem to contradict the book’s central themes for the sake of a blockbuster worthy climax and ends up supporting the views of the many delusional cranks surrounding Ricky. This stuff left me cold and I wish it would have closed on a note that owed more to Scooby Doo than Dan Brown. Big Machine is much more engaging when real people are the culprits.
Despite my disappointment at the closing plot machinations, LaValle leads Ricky to a credibly upbeat conclusion. “My country is my family. I like America,” he says. And I believed that Ricky could put up with so much crap yet still have some hope for the betterment of society.