Lavalle, Victor (2010). Big Machine. New York: Spiegel & Grau (366 pp.).
At least a meandering river will reach the sea. This tale just meanders, as the cover art suggests. The first-person narrator, Ricky Rice, is a heroin addict and a hand-to-mouth janitor in upstate New York. As a character, he is fairly interesting, with acute observations and sharp wit. His voice is the strength of the novel, but that’s about it.
His story is a series of implausible adventures, from becoming a research librarian in Vermont, to a sort of bounty hunter of a cult leader, then a fighter of supernatural demons, then an unwilling father, until in the end, his soul is eaten by a pack of feral cats, or maybe not, since he seems to be in a romantic relationship with a clueless detective in the last scene. None of it makes any sense, so you have to enjoy the book just for the sake of the interesting writing.
Much of the dialog has the sardonic wit of Christopher Moore, and some of the comments on social mores suggest Don DeLillo, so it’s fun, but Ricky Rice is a blunderer, not a man on a mission, and if he comes out the other end of this meat-grinder a changed man, there is no motivation behind the change. Like everything else, it just happens, for no particular reason.
That’s a characteristic of the writing, which was probably done without an outline. When the pace sags, as it often does, a new character appears out of nowhere with some crucial piece of information that kicks the story into a new direction. I made many “DXM” notes in the margins (for “Deus ex Machina”). Sometimes the author just manufactures suspense where there isn’t any:
“And yet, for all that, it wasn’t the Washerwomen who killed my sister, Daphne. It was me.” (End of chapter. No follow-up until many chapters later. That’s manufactured drama, not real drama.)
Equally clunky, Lavalle handles his backstory by simply dumping it into separate chapters interspersed with the ongoing adventures, with the result that there is no sense of character chronology, let alone development.
The author’s sartorial fixation also becomes grating. Characters’ clothing is described in unnecessary detail and many pages are devoted to dressing and undressing, laundry and ironing, none of it very interesting (to me, at least).
Thematically, there a few intriguing threads. “The Big Machine” is self-doubt. Self-doubt is the only thing that can penetrate self-delusion. It’s a dubious sentiment and remains just that cryptic, not developed or explained.
The main characters are people who suffered abusive, cruel and life-threatening trauma as children and youth. Several times it is stated that the despised become despicable. Another fine sentiment, if true. So a theme must be redemption, since characters end up getting a second chance to live happily ever after. Again, that theme is merely stated, not explored.
There’s a vague supernatural theme going on, with underworld devils and demons, and “swamp angels” and a whiff of LDS mythology with a great cross-country journey to hide golden treasure, but none of it adds up to anything.
I give the book points for originally, wit, and some passages of good writing, but these virtues were swamped by the arbitrariness of the scenes and lack of an overall through-line. If you don’t mind a story that has no story, you can enjoy this novel just for its creativity.