Commodity Fetishism in Big Machine

A recurring motif in Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine is immense amount of detail and narrative space given to clothing and particularly the clothing of the scholars as it is described by Ricky Rice, the narrator.  I read The Talented Mr. Ripley last semester and noticed Patricia Highsmith also described clothing through her narrator Tom Ripley, in a painstakingly descriptive way.

In Big Machine, Ricky becomes fixated on his clothing.  On page 129, he painstakingly chooses an outfit for the day: “Did you notice, by the way, that the Gray Lady said nothing about my suit when I met her for the walk to Stone Mason Square… If she wasn’t going to pay me a compliment on that outfit, I wasn’t sure what I could use to dazzle her… I spent a long while bringing a sports jacket up to myself… then exchanging it for a sweater and so forth… It was a painstaking process… my fedora looked ostentatious.  My sock garters seemed foppish and vain.” I realize that this is an incredibly long quote to pull, but that is intentional. The length, and notice the number of ellipses, shows just how vain Ricky has become. Now, one could argue that this attention to detail and insecurity is partly due to the presence of the Gray Lady, and Ricky’s inability to woo her, but there are other places in the text where Ricky pays great attention to his clothing.  

Even in reference to other people, Ricky’s attention to clothing detail is impeccable: “The Gray Lady wore that fur-lined jacket, black stockings leading out the bottom of her frock, a cloche hat, and a pair of black leather bluchers… I wore my tweed three-piece.  My Yale Brown fedora… a Byron collar” (103).

When we discussed The Talented Mr. Ripley last semester we referenced Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.  In this context Marx argues that capitalism produces a magical quality in commodities, that makes consumers forget, or rather neglect to recognize, the labor required to produce a good.  Rather the commodity appears to have intrinsic value independent of the labor that produced it. Commodity fetishism references the mystical quality of goods, and the obsessive nature of consumers.  In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom becomes obsessed with fine goods, after having lived a life in poverty, almost like a squatter.  Tom seeks out a Euro-trip which results in the murder of his host.  Tom newly obsessed with the image and the lifestyle of his once-friend-now-victim, takes on his identity and lives a life of luxury.

The themes in Big Machine differ in terms of plot, but the rags to “riches” trope is similar.  “Riches,” I purposely cordon off with quotations because of the financial struggle of the library and the lack of real monetary wealth that Ricky and the other scholars possess.  Ricky isn’t rich in money or really anything other than clothing, but it seems he has no problem with this fact.  For Ricky, like Tom, it is about the transition from destitution, to some pseudo-level of higher status, or for Ricky, purpose.  Early on in the novel, before Ricky gets his “uniform,” he notes how this new possession might change his worldview: “I felt that when I put on those new outfits, I’d be changed… This would mark my true conversion” (68).  

It is clear that Ricky’s life of tragedy, addiction, and poverty has created a sort of complex which makes his easily influenced by material possessions.  Yet, at the same time, it is especially interesting to consider the ways in which Ricky reacts to his expensive and fine clothing as opposed to how he reacts to the motel that he stays in in Garland, California.  The first morning of his stay at “By the Bay,” Ricky wakes up with bites from bed bugs (129). It is clear that Ricky doesn’t have access to any resources or wealth independent of the clothing that he wears, yet his clothing still produces a sort of self esteem indicative of an upper class individual.  

When Ricky meets Solomon Clay, he unsurprisingly fixates on his clothing: “Solomon Clay wore a six-buttoned black woll double-breasted suit with a cream-colored tie peeking out the collar… the final touch, white satin spats.  Spats! He shimmered inside his platinum threads. A god in gods’ clothing” (177). In this interaction, Ricky’s self esteem falters, “[he] was just a tired junky in a knockoff Norfolk suit” (177).  Ricky finds out from Solomon that the suit is infact a “relic,” not a “knockoff” (177).  We learn with Ricky, that all of the clothing of the unlikely scholars is passed down, which explains the vintage look that the library “goes for;” it is not an intentional choice. This fact exposes the financial pressure that the library faces.  I found this fact incredibly telling, I was unsurprised to learn later in the novel that the library struggled with finances.  

In this same interaction Clay accuses Ricky of something I’ve been exploring in this post: “Ricky here was a heroin addict for almost twenty years, and somehow he thinks he’s better than you, Martin,” Martin is the homeless youth that Clay has brainwashed.  This statement by Clay embodies his cause as well as the commodity fetishism which can brainwash consumers into thinking the clothes on their backs determine their worth. What I’m not saying is that Ricky being a former addict makes him worth less, rather I am arguing that the clothes on his back do not make him worth more.  I think that Ricky and the other scholars having access to nice clothing effectively changed their respective self esteems, until in Ricky’s case, he is confronted with disapproval from others (read: the Gray Lady), or even fashion competitors (read: Solomon Clay).


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