Sex Work is not a Crutch: How Big Machine Falls Short

The first time I thought about writing this blog post was after the reading of “The Resistance: An Adele Henry Adventure.”  I held myself back though, because I knew that my immediate response would likely be too passionate and uncontained. I also wanted to give Big Machine and LaValle a chance at redemption.  I was unfortunately disappointed.

Given my particular point of view, as a Women’s and Gender Studies major, the way in which the storyline of Adele Henry was handled made me deeply uncomfortable.  I first noticed this during Ricky’s first encounter with Solomon Clay. After a weird back and forth which mirrored a prepubescent disagreement, at the mention of Adele Henry, Solomon Clay gave his unasked-for assessment:

Before she came to the Library, that woman sold for pennies. You understand me? Twenty dollars! That’s what men paid to love her. You could love her in the mouth of right up the ass, but she’d have to pay you to go swimming up that funky tweeter. That’s your Ms. Henry. A shitstain whore (179).

At the time of this reading, I was bothered by the statement, for obvious reasons.  Solomon Clay revealed himself as a reprehensible misogynist. It was hard for me to read that quote without thinking of my past work in Women’s Studies, learning and believing that sex work is work.  And more importantly that sex workers are people.  It was incredibly hard for me to set my own biases aside when reading this quote.  It didn’t help that the quote was vulgar and explicit in nature.

After this is said to Ricky, his internal reaction was lacking in length, but nonetheless what was said was worthy of praise.  Unfortunately, he was lacking in external defense. His external response was a subtle stab at Clay, arguing that he wasn’t necessarily so holy himself, but none of the unlikely scholars are (179).  His internal monologue explores his past relationships, and his disbelief in Clay’s assumption that “[Ricky] was the kind of man who could be turned so easily” (179). After a brief inner reflection the narrative action moves along.  Leaving Adele behind, only to keep harkening back to her “subversive” past.

In the chapter titled “The Resistance: An Adele Henry Adventure,” we learn about Adele’s past.  I’ll get to the content of the chapter after this aside on structure and narrative. Structurally and narratively, I was a little confused as to why Ricky was still the narrator of this chapter.  Up until this chapter of Big Machine, the chapters were short and concise.  This chapter abandoned form; it was the longest in the book, it had its own unique title, and it spans what seemed like several days.  Because of the way in which the chapter strayed from the structure of past chapters I felt that it wouldn’t have been a stretch to introduce a new narrative style as well, giving Henry her own voice.  Big Machine did not give Adele Henry her own narrative voice, rather her story was relayed through the familiar Ricky Rice.  

Given the end of the book, this choice to keep Ricky as the sole narrator makes sense.  It is revealed in chapter 80 that the book is written in the form of a pseudo letter to Ricky and Adele’s child.  LaValle successfully breaks the fourth wall with the opening line of the chapter: “So why tell you all of this? Any of this” (355).  Had the book not revealed this distinct narrative style, I think Adele’s voice would have been a better choice for her chapter, “The Resistance: An Adele Henry Adventure.”

In terms of content, I was excited to learn about Adele’s back story both at the Library and before, but I was unfortunately disappointed with the way she was treated by figures of authority within the book and with what LaValle as an author chose to focus on.  When Adele is called up to the Dean, she is belittled on the basis of her past in sex work. As a means of making Henry agree to the task at hand and work to save the Library the Dean effectively threatens her by referring to her past, arguing that if the Library were to fail, if she were to fail on this mission, she would have to “go back to selling that ass” (245).  

Later when she meets Solomon Clay he shows himself to be a self righteous misogynist yet again.  Despite wearing the same uniform as the other Unlikely Scholars, he looks at Adele and accuses her of “dressing like businesspeople,” he goes on to formulate his own term of referral: “pros.”  It doesn’t stop there, though the burn has been afflicted in an implicated, subtle fashion, Clay must make his disrespect clearer by assuming that Adele has “been called a pro plenty of times before” (248).  

I can understand that maybe something that LaValle is attempting is to show the ways in which the general population responds to sex work and how they subsequently treat sex workers.  I understand this point of view, but I would argue that it isn’t enough to depict an stereotype or poor treatment, and offer little to no commentary in support of the marginalized group.  Ricky offers some form of defense when he and Solomon are in contact, but like I said before it is internal and spans less half a page. Only two sentences which mention sex work explicitly.

Then we get to the reason for Adele’s aversion to touch.  Given all the cues in the chapters which showed the physical distance between her and Ricky, I could have guessed some sort of sexual trauma plagued her past.  Again I felt like Adele wasn’t given enough, her back story felt like a trope. The tragic prostitute and perpetual victim. It felt like sex work was used as a crutch for Henry.  Something that she herself couldn’t pull herself out of. It isn’t until Ricky, a pregnant man, is brought into the picture that she is able to move past some of that trauma. The scene between the two of them after the explosion where they share a physical moment was touching.  I loved it, but not without critique. It seemed as though a woman who had lived through a weekend of brutal torture should have been able to achieve a sort of peace without Ricky, but again I don’t know if I’m being too hypercritical.

Some aspects of Adele’s backstory were handled well, while others felt cheap and lazy.  It is hard for me to pinpoint and rationalize LaValle’s depiction of Adele Henry. It is extra hard for me to reconcile her story line and my own biases.  I like to think the writing of this blog post has helped me to reveal some truths about Adele Henry’s story line and my view of that story line, but I think I remain as divided as before.  

Sex work itself is so fraught with controversy.  Outside of and within the various feminist perspectives.  It is hard to rationalize and analyze without taking into account the various stories within sex work.  Sex work as a category spans a vast range of types of work which contain their own sexual and moral hierarchies.  Additionally, the types of people who engage in sex work is varied in ways that I think many people don’t realize.  

I’m not in any way vilifying Big Machine or Victor LaValle, because I loved the story and I even loved Adele’s character.  It just felt at times that her story line and past was vilified in a way which lacked depth and proper analysis.  I invite anyone to respond with their own ideas concerning this matter, as I am open to more views which might help me to come to a better understanding.  


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