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‘Big Machine’ Churns Out A Twisting Collage Of Crime

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 8, 2011

I like what Victor LaValle is doing. Let me rephrase. I love what he is doing. His third book — Big Machine — is, itself, a big machine.

Its ambition is epic, characters flawed and unpredictable, plot fantastical. As I read this novel, I realized: I think of myself as possessing a lot of certainty about my politics, my perspectives. This book, however, gives me doubts. And for that reason, you must read this book.

Big Machine is the story of Ricky Rice, a recovering heroin addict, who has been summoned to a mysterious place called the Washburn Library in Vermont. He, along with several other societal misfits nicknamed the Unlikely Scholars, is instructed to peruse archives of newspaper clippings, and to investigate a mysterious Voice that spoke more than 200 years ago to Judah Washburn, the library’s founder.

Soon Ricky, joined by his cohort, Adele, is sent to California to seek and assassinate a former Scholar who has broken off from the organization to start a rogue group. As we follow these two on their mission, we learn that Ricky was raised in a religious cult that ultimately committed group suicide, and Adele is a former prostitute who narrowly escaped the machinations of a serial killer.

In LaValle’s explorations of faith and skepticism, he suggests that we must believe in something, but he also insists that unquestioning faith is dangerous, too. For example, The Washerwomen, heads of the religion that Ricky’s family follows, encourage the children to cultivate a healthy form of skepticism while ironically expecting their unquestioning commitment to the cult.

American writers have often struggled with questions of faith. In 1942, Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her autobiography, “you wouldn’t think that a person who was born with God in the house would ever have any questions to ask on the subject. But as early as I can remember, I was questing and seeking.” LaValle’s novel encourages the same thoughtful probing.

As I was reading this book, I saw my daily experiences in a new light. I walk and ride public transportation every day, and I once watched as the contents of a woman’s purse spilled onto the floor of the bus as she nodded, drool running from her mouth. I sat there motionlessly while those around me quietly returned her lipstick, bus card and wallet to her purse and placed it back in her lap. Then the passenger beside the sleeping woman nudged her and said, “You alright, sister?” I thought of LaValle’s novel at that moment, and I promised myself that next time I would be the one to help.

When a writer of LaValle’s skills explores these fundamental questions about faith, we are forced as reader-citizens to examine our own beliefs. What do we believe and what do we doubt? Do we even know? At one point in the novel, a “bum” on a bus yells: “To be an American is to be a believer!” followed by, “But y’all don’t even understand what you believe in.”

What is literature if not something that inspires us to take a closer, deeper look at ourselves? If this is what great books do — urge us to be our more compassionate selves — then Big Machine should be on our list of must-read books.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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