Big Machine, Intertext and Allegory

In class on Friday, 4/26, our group put Big Machine in conversation with a few other texts that we had encountered earlier this semester, as well as a few others from outside the class. In addition to The Last Angel of History and  “Bloodchild,” our group drew connections between the concluding chapters and Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.” There is a quatrain in the poem that cannot be read any longer without thinking of Ricky Rice:

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell. (Lindsay)


This came about from an exploration into Murder’s character and the significance of his Belgian heritage. While this poem replicates the horrors the Belgian Congo and traffics in stereotypes, LaValle’s reworking of it offers a creative way to acknowledge its historical import without recycling its racist tone. There were two other examples of Belgian murder cases, one that appeared to be cult activity and one that involved victim’s in basements, that seemed to serve as intertextual material for LaValle. However, these reports are rather upsetting to read and I will not go into detail here. It is important, still, to note that LaValle is handling these troubling stories in a way that gets readers to think responsibly about their histories. His storytelling is a mode of Parks’s “Rep&Rev.”

On a different level, the end of Big Machine works very well as an allegory for story of Joseph and Mary. Here again is an example of how LaValle, as Dr. McCoy pointed out, knows his readers, in some ways, better than we know ourselves. I am usually hesitant to label texts as allegories because it can limit interpretations in some ways. However, I think the parallels here are clear and very interesting to think about.  Ricky even considers the story on the closing page of the novel saying, “the story that actually moves me . . . is the story of Joseph and Mary” (LaValle 366). We talked in class about Ricky’s pregnancy as a product of a non-consensual act, which isn’t to say, as Dr. McCoy noted, that LaValle condones this in anyway. Similarly, in the New Testament, Mary did not choose, rather she was chosen by God and greeted by the angel Gabriel who told her she would bear a child. Ricky is in awe of his selection and of the arrival of the Swamp Angels. Pushing a little further, Ricky and Ms. Henry traverse the country in search of impermanent residences, cast out by institutions around them; the despised have become the despicable. In the story of Joseph and Mary, the two reach the inn which cannot accommodate them, forcing the birth of Jesus to occur in a barn out back. Admittedly, my knowledge of the New Testament does not extend much further, but I think the story is a fitting framework for a novel about people who are chosen for duty, though they may not know why.

Of course, my favorite part of class yesterday came when everyone realized that an angel gestating on Ricky’s shoulders amounted to him growing a pair of wings. Though he claims to have emerged from Murder’s basement with only 60% of his soul in tact, Ricky has now been granted a second chance at actualizing his goals of bravery by way of the life inside him and his relationship with Adele. Here again, we see LaValle taking an ancient story, one that has been repeated and repeated, offering it a revision that pushing on the possibilities of its meaning.

Some of my classmates struggled with the genre while attempting to categorize Big Machine. I similarly have no idea where to place it. However, this, I think, is part of its artistic value. LaValle incorporates so much genre-bending, intertexutal referencing, and allegorical storytelling which makes reader’s reconsider possibilities. In the paratextual praise for Big Machine, LaValle draws comparisons to Pynchon, Ellison, and Murakami. However, I think the Los Angeles Times reviewer was closest in saying his style is “all his own.”

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