Summary and book reviews of Big Machine by Victor LaValle

Big Machine

A Novel

By Victor LaValle

Big Machine
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Aug 2009,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2010,
    384 pages.

    Publication Information

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Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton

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About this Book

Book Summary

A fiendishly imaginative comic novel about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us.

Ricky Rice was as good as invisible: a middling hustler, recovering dope fiend, and traumatized cult survivor running out the string of his life as a porter at a bus depot in Utica, New York. Until one day a letter appears, summoning him to the frozen woods of Vermont. There, Ricky is inducted into a band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard The Voice: a mysterious murmur on the wind, a disembodied shout, or a whisper in an empty room that may or may not be from God.

Evoking the disorienting wonder of writers like Haruki Murakami and Kevin Brockmeier, but driven by Victor LaValle’s perfectly pitched comic sensibility Big Machine is a mind-rattling literary adventure about sex, race, and the eternal struggle between faith and doubt.

Chapter One

Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms. The most you’ll find is privacy and sticky floors. But when my boss gave me the glossy envelope, the bathroom was the first place I ran. What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job.

I was a janitor at Union Station in Utica, New York. Specifically contracted through Trailways to keep their little ticket booth and nearby bathroom clean. I’d done the same job in other upstate towns, places so small their whole bus stations could’ve fit inside Union Station’s marbled hall. A year in Kingston, six months in Elmira. Then Troy. Quit one and find the next. Sometimes I told them I was leaving, other times I just disappeared.

When I got the envelope, I went to the bathroom and shut the door. I couldn’t lock it from the inside so I did the next best thing and pulled my cleaning cart in front of the door to block the way. My boss was a woman, but if the floors in front of the Trailways booth weren’t ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

While Big Machine contains encounters with the sorts of angels and demons that skeptical readers might think belong more in a Dan Brown thriller than a literary novel, these supernatural elements expertly rub shoulders with realistic depictions of childhood fears, drug addiction, and the ramifications of religious faith. Indeed, the extraordinary and the ordinary intertwine so successfully that it’s impossible to imagine the book stripped of either; this isn’t a realist novel overlaid with the paranormal, nor is it a fantasy that occasionally interjects glimpses of reality. Anchoring all these big subjects is the voice of Ricky, a tough, honest, funny, and likeable narrator who has made many mistakes in his life but in whom readers can trust and become fully invested.   (Reviewed by Marnie Colton).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post

Despite its steady pulse of dark humor, its supernatural Voice and the presence of some creepy entities known as the Devils of the Marsh, Big Machine is a novel about faith and the ways in which religion can create monsters far more terrifying than anything dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft.

The California Literary Review

... a dizzying slipstream mashup of genres and memes and tropes and legends wrapped around a cross-cultural love story.... a transcendent and provocative book that is wildly original and completely absorbing.

The Los Angeles Times

Lest Big Machine seem like an unbroken series of rich hallucinatory tableaux, I want to stress how appealing Ricky Rice's voice is, and how funny a writer LaValle often is.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. LaValle has garnered critical acclaim for his previous works ... and his second novel is sure to up his critical standing while furthering comparisons to Haruki Murakami, John Kennedy Toole and Edgar Allan Poe.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Fractures all of our notions of how well-made fiction ought to behave ... idea-hungry and haywire, too alive and abrasive to be missed. The multicultural novel has come of age — smashingly.

Bookforum

LaValle is as much wry fabulist as he is dogged allegorist, and his flights of grim fancy are tethered by acute observations. He can be awfully funny, too. [His] devilish fable renders the visible world – of science, social hierarchies, and New York Times headlines – a load of cultish hooey.

Author Blurb Amy Bloom, author of the New York Times bestseller Away
If Hieronymus Bosch and Lenny Bruce got knocked up by a woman with a large and compassionate heart, they might have brought forth Big Machine. But it is Victor LaValle's peculiar, poetic, rough and funny voice that brings it to us, alive and kicking and irresistible.

Author Blurb Mos Def
Big Machine is like nothing I've ever read, incredibly human and alien at the same time. LaValle writes like Gabriel Garcia Marquez mixed with Edgar Allen Poe, but this is even more than that. He’s written the first great book of the next America.

Author Blurb Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and About Grace
If the literary Gods mixed together Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison, and threw in several fistfuls of 21st century attitude, the result would be Victor LaValle. Big Machine is a wonderful, original, and crazy novel.

Reader Reviews
Bonnie Brody

A Trip to the Wild Side
Part mystery, part science fiction and part fantasy, this book is a genre buster. It is about a group of ex-addicts and street people, all black, who have been chosen to be a group of Unlikely Scholars. Their job is to read newspaper articles ...   Read More

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Parapsychology vs. Skepticism
While the Washburn Library is a purely fictional invention, it does have an analog in the real world: the Rhine Research Center, once known as the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, and home to the Institute for Parapsychology until 2002. Formerly affiliated with Duke University, the Rhine now operates independently a short distance away from the campus and continues to conduct research into consciousness, specifically, those aspects that for many years have resisted scientific explanation. While the Center has moved beyond its original mission in the 1920s to conduct experiments on extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK), it still focuses largely on topics shunned by traditional ...

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