December 1st, 2011


Big Machine

It's no secret I'm a huge fan of Victor LaValle's work. Previously, I raved about his first novel, The Ecstatic, and his story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus. His second novel, Big Machine, is no less amazing. Winner of the American Book Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, and on numerous newspapers' and magazines' Best Books of the Year lists, Big Machine is an immersive, compelling read that combines horror, noir, and literary tropes into something completely fresh. While LaValle continues to pay special attention to character and language, Big Machine is also his most plot-driven work to date.

Ricky Rice is a down-on-his-luck janitor trying to kick a dope addiction when he receives a mysterious letter that mentions a promise he made years ago, a promise no one but Ricky himself could know about. Intrigued, he follows the letter's instructions and arrives at the Washburn Library, a secret institution hidden in the woods of Vermont. There he, along with the other "Unlikely Scholars" who have been summoned there, are given little to no information about why they've been called, though eventually they deduce that they're meant to be paranormal investigators of sorts. Something called The Voice has been trying to speak to humankind for centuries now, through strange noises in abandoned garages and the creaking of the wind on old mountain cabins. Ricky's job is to find newspaper clippings of unexplained events that may be The Voice trying to reach us.

Stunningly, this only comprises the first third of the book. Once Ricky finds enough clippings to impress the Dean of the Library, he and a partner are sent on a mission: Find a renegade Unlikely Scholar in California who has gone rogue and started blowing people up. Soon Ricky finds himself in the midst of brainwashed bums with explosives in their backpacks, hideous unearthly creatures that may be angels, and an unexplained pregnancy.

LaValle's imagination hits overdrive in Big Machine, but none of it feels forced or out of place. All the attention this novel has received, both inside and outside the genre fiction readership, is well deserved. LaValle reminds me a lot of Stewart O'Nan in that he's an author with a literary eye for language and depth of emotion, but also secretly loves geeky horror and science fiction stuff--a love that, until now, only occasionally seeped through the surface of his work. In Big Machine, he brings it to the forefront with spectacular results. It's a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of a book, two great tastes that taste great together: a literary marvel, and a genre masterpiece.