In class discussion yesterday, Maria Papas brought up this passage from Big Machine to support her argument that the book does not glorify substance abuse:
“Go and tell someone the worst thing about yourself. Cheated on a husband. Abused your child. Or, like in my case, that you’ve been addicted to heroin for half your life. Just tell them that and nothing else. You find that people come up with an entire history based on that one fact. They assume the worst about you.” p.95
To me, this quote speaks about perception and first impressions, a topic I’ve written about before and am interested in. Immediately I was reminded of the quote I picked out last Friday from Big Machine
“The face of goodness may surprise you.” p.265
Both of these quotes refer to the subjectivity of morals which has always been wrapped up in perception. These quotes also allude to the theme of unlikely heroes and second chances. Adele Henry’s character exemplifies this. Throughout the book we see her act immorally and selfishly when she murders Snooky Washburn to protect the Library or when she kills Claude. Judging from these actions solely, she could be classified as a villain. However, by the end of the novel she attempts to stop Solomon Clay from killing innocents and is the only character to stand by Ricky and continue to protect him from the Church of Clay and the Washburn Library. She is a surprising hero because of her past, and proves Joyce’s quote true. This is not the only example in the novel of characters or institutions we thought were antagonistic turning out to be the opposite.
We see the same dichotomy in the Devils of the Marsh a.k.a. Swamp Angels. When we first meet this group they are described by Ricky as terrifying monsters. By the end of the novel the audience comes around to realize that despite their initially scary appearance, they attempt to warn Adele about Clay and aid Ricky in killing Clay. Ricky comes to see the Swamp Angels as his sort of pseudo-family.
It is not always the “face of goodness” that catches us off guard. Sometimes those we place our trust in let us down, and people and institutions that we thought were positive turn out to be negative. Think of the Washburn Library. At the start of the story, the Library is a place of mystery, hope, and a second chance and home for Ricky Rice. By the end he realizes that the Dean can’t be trusted and is using Ricky for his own corrupted motives: trying to gain control over an Angel.
The point I think LaValle is making is twofold: first, what we perceive to be the truth is not always so (perception is not reality), and second, humans are complex and can’t simply be boiled down to good or bad.
We often, in my opinion, overvalue first impressions. When I was a kid my parents always instilled into me that “first impressions are important.” This never made sense however, because what if I happened to meet a person when they were having a bad day. They shouldn’t be judged upon a single event or interaction because this creates a narrow view where not all the facts nor the situation is taken into context. To me, people are dynamic and have the incredible potential for change.
This is the case in Big Machine. All the characters come from struggle and have made mistakes in their life, but as Ricky tells Ravi in the final chapters, everyone has the opportunity for a second chance, even the despised. As we see in the novel, when we dismiss people because of their strife, it can breed hate and lead to catastrophe. Just because we perceive someone as bad doesn’t not necessarily mean they are so (they may be bad to us, that doesn’t mean they’re bad to all), nor does it mean they cannot change (the despised can become the loved and vice versa). Even Solomon Clay was revered by his apostles because he accepted them and gave them a home and purpose.
The face of goodness as well as the face of evil often shocks us because it is unexpected. The theme of unlikely heroes and heroines in Big Machine speaks to the fact that people are sophisticated and changing. There are few who could be classified only as a hero or as a villain, and beyond morality can be subjective as not everyone values the same qualities.