The more books I read, the more excited I get when I read something new and unclassifiable. Another vampire book, another zombie apocalypse? Yawn. But give me something ambitious, something wild, something that defies easy description – and you have my attention. And rarely has that description applied to a book more than it does to Victor LaValle’s incredible, ambitious, surreal Big Machine, a book that’s part horror, part weird tale, part meditation on class and race in America, part exploration of faith and doubt, and part comic book story. And it works all the better for the way it tosses all of those into a blender and just embraces the chaos that results.
To try to summarize Big Machine is a fool’s errand, but the basic hook is a good one: it’s the story of Ricky Rice, a black man who’s ended up working as a janitor in a bus station. And his life seems…okay. It’s not what he wanted, and you get the sense that Ricky could be doing more, but he’s made his peace with how he’s ended up. And then, one day, Ricky gets a letter from an unknown sender. In that letter is a bus ticket, and a reminder that he made a promise. And based off of that, Ricky takes the bus, and leaves his old life behind.
That’s an intriguing setup, and all of that is even before we find out about the nature of that promise, and why Ricky is so baffled to be reminded of it; that’s before we find out about Ricky’s new job, which involves an organization that seems to recruit African-Americans whose lives have fallen apart, and gives them a new purpose – one that they’re not really interested in explaining. And that’s before things start getting weird, and then just keep getting weirder. Big Machine is nothing if not ambitious, and I loved the way the book started in a grounded reality, only to slowly slide into something mixture of religious belief, Weird fiction, and secret history of the underclass.
But even before you get to the plotting, there’s a sense that Big Machine isn’t the book you might think it is, and it comes early on, as Ricky takes his bus ride, and ends up dealing with a street-preaching lunatic on the bus. It’s an odd scene, and a quick one, but it also gives you a sense that Big Machine is discussing something larger: the way we treat our outcasts, the way we treat those less fortunate than ourselves. And although the scene doesn’t pertain to the plot, in many ways, it’s my favorite scene in the book, setting the stage for the larger ideas that LaValle will be dealing with later on.
Because, make no mistake, although this is a wonderfully odd book, one that feels like a race-based superhero story at times, and other times feels like an X-Files episode gone truly surreal, it’s also an undeniably literary one, one that uses its supernatural trappings as a way of exploring race, class, and faith in America. It’s a book that’s fascinated by how we treat the homeless, and the rage that they must feel; it’s a book that makes outcasts its heroes, and reminds us how powerful it can be to get a helping hand when you’ve given up on the world; it’s a book that explores faith not in terms of religion, but in terms of how it can shape your life, and how religion can make us better – or worse – people. And that only becomes clearer and clearer as the book continues, and we meet revolutionary prophets for the homeless, understand Ricky’s childhood in all its horrific context, and begin to come to an understanding of the fact that the only real way to solve the book’s mysteries has nothing to do with the mystical creatures Ricky uncovers.
Indeed, if there’s a complaint I sort of understand about Big Machine, it’s the strange ending, which seems to reject everything the book has been throwing at us. And yet, on a second read of the book, I love that ending even more, because of its humanity, its humane outlook, and its surprising optimism. Big Machine is a book of conspiracies, of horrors, of violence, and of dark pasts…but it’s also a book that believes in change and the future. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing to find.