Big Machine by Victor D. LaValle

Big Machine is, on the face of it, a rollicking old-school adventure. It subjects the reader to layers of complex character history dragging you along to the finale, desperate to show you the dénouement. But leaves you wanting more and in a thoughtful state of mind. It is that classic trope, extraordinary things happening to seemingly ordinary folk. But are they all they seem?

Ricky Rice is a middle aged man in a dead end job. He has a dark history of drugs and broken relationships. He is the sole survivor of a tiny cult known as the Washerwomen who re-wrote the bible setting it in America. One day a letter arrives telling him it was time to make good on a promise he once made. But who knew he made that promise? And what must he do to keep it? Before long, he is one of the Unlikely Scholars, working in an old and mysterious library, looking for clues to potentially prove paranormal activity. The history of the library is revealed to have originated in the search for the voice of God. Its founder claiming to have been spoken to directly.

The nature of this supernatural quest is revealed to the reader as it is to Rice. This is not fiction for those who prefer honest motivations. Rice follows the logic of the narration, rather than the external logic of everyday life. You have to simply go with him rather than question his motivations.

About a third of the way through the novel, the tone changes as Ricky leaves the library on a secret mission. The prose at this point feels oddly muted despite featuring terrorist bombings and magical attacks while alternating with the story of Rice’s tragic childhood at the hands of the pseudo-religious cult. The shades of grey that brought him to where he is today are exposed. I found this section of the book a little frustrating. Sure, it revealed the true motivations by many of the characters and gives a real depth to Ricky and his former and current relationships. However, I felt the tone shifted from the earlier section and I wasn’t as hooked.

The final third pulls both styles together, as we divert off into another character’s back story, the nature of the supernatural elements, if not exactly explicitly revealed, then at least hinted at. Magic is shown to be a definite part of this universe. However, as opposed to much fantasy fiction, there are no clear answers. Our hero does not ride off into the sunset with all the demons defeated and bad guys vanquished. Morality is left swimming in a grey puddle. Words spoken to characters are not revealed to the reader. As in some of the best films, the ending is ambiguous, although there is a mooted sequel in the offing.

This is a re-invention of urban fantasy or supernatural drama. It is not the story of a magician or a superhero, but of a darkly messed up man finding out the world isn’t quite what he thought it was. Maybe it is worse, but maybe better. As well as an entertaining paranormal adventure, it is also a treatise on the potential folly of modern times, a comment on how terrorists brainwash the vulnerable, and how religion is not always a force for good.

The first person prose is skilfully written, giving a genuine noir feeling. However, I did drift away at times. The minutiae of the story are described in such detail that sometimes I was so lost in the characters that I forgot what was happening in the story.

Oh, and I have to say that this is the first genre fiction I’ve read where almost all the characters were of African American origin, which is very refreshing.

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