Zach's Reviews > Big Machine

Big Machine by Victor LaValle
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's review
Oct 20, 2011

really liked it

The blurbs on the back of this book do their best to compare Lavalle's work to that of other writers. While I understand the impulse, and I don't deny some similarities, drawing comparisons might, in this case, be diminishing what's actually there. It is a vast and fantastical work, the plot driven at first by improbable and then eventually impossible events. What holds it together is the underlying cultural study, an exploration of the African American identity. At first, I found this off-putting, as I prefer fiction that doesn't manipulate my attention toward issues. I don't like it when a novel declares "This is what I'm about." Fortunately, in Big Machine that's not the case, and the focus expands from the specific to the universal, so the theme becomes identity in the general sense, and any initial feelings of exclusion I felt were quickly dispelled. The issue of racial identity is dealt with in a way that is relevant to any reader.

I feel like I've maybe focused too much on that one concern, which doesn't do justice to the book as a whole. It is one part supernatural thriller, one part literature, and one part...I can't quite put my finger on it. The characters are all struggling with life - addicts and prostitutes and criminals of one shade or another - who have been given a second, absurd chance. At first, this seems like a road to redemption, but it becomes clear that not one of them is redeemed from anything, and if their behavior has altered, it's only because they're afraid of losing their new, comfortable lives. It's an interesting and unique tension - one that I haven't really seen explored before.

The novel is plot-driven, and the absurd elements are always grounded in the reality of the details and the characters' psychology. No matter how weird their circumstances the people always remain real, and the reader always knows where a scene takes place. The tunnels of a sewer, for example, are rendered with such detail as to inspire bathing.

At times fun, at times funny, and often sad, Big Machine is a well made cocktail of a book.

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