Is Big Machine Linear or Cyclic?

Throughout the semester we have considered the function of linear and cyclic interpretations of time. It is particularly fitting this time of year as many seniors prepare for graduation. While I view my path as an accumulation of credits toward the eventual walk across the stage, Beth reminds us all of the incoming class that tours outside Welles every day. My journey toward graduation has been linear, though the college engages in continuous cycles of admitting and graduating its students. Thus, the college experience is both linear and cyclic. Of course, Big Machine is too.

A circle starts at one point and continues on until it reaches that point again. Big Machine starts with the statement, “Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.” Ricky is hiding at work and contemplates “the hygiene of the male species,” so yeah, this is a low point for him. The last sentences of the text read, “I guess we could lock ourselves in the bathroom and hide. Let someone else face the fight. But we’re not going to do that.” The text starts and ends in the bathroom, making it circular. And yet, Ricky shows a linear progression in that at the beginning he was hiding and at the end he chose to face the fight.

This plot pattern would look something like the upward spiral used by Suzan-Lori Parks in The America Play, which is distinct from the conventional plot mountain structure. I’ve been considering what higher function this structure could serve, and that brought me back to a conversation that my group had in class on Friday. Andrew was talking about how society progresses over time and expressed that the present is the best time to be alive. While I agree that many things are better now (slavery is outlawed, fewer people die during surgery, education is more accessible, etc.), many patterns of the past repeat. Some of these patterns are the most prominent themes of Big Machine. For example, society continues to be made up of those who are “in” and those who are the “despised.” The city of Garland in the text, where a certain area is well cared for with city resources and the area with a high homeless population is left to self-preserve after disasters, could be any American city. Additionally, in society there are institutions of all types that ask for individuals’ faith, and individuals must sort out their own doubt and faith.  Big Machine demonstrated this experience repeatedly through the Washerwomen and the Washburn Library. 

I think that by closing the text with the end of a cycle, from bathroom to bathroom, LaValle is demonstrating that certain patterns will repeat, and yet the individual facing them can learn from each iteration. It seems an optimistic message about human potential, and I do hope to see whether LaValle continues this pattern in the remainder of the trilogy.

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