“Bloodchild” has changed much of what I thought I knew. Octavia Butler’s story fascinated me, yes, but more so confused me and left me so unsure of my own convictions. If there are aliens, if there are monsters, if there is an “other,” who are they?
I thought about this a lot after finishing Big Machine. In fact, before I was even consciously aware of it, I tackled it in my blog post. Were the Devils of the Marsh (or the “Swamp Angels”) the “monsters?” Every character seems to think this at least at one point in the novel. How could you not? When Adele sees them in the Devils Well, they “fluttered like the fumes above a fire.” Adele describes the sight of them as literally “terror.” When one of the Devils grabs her arm, she describes it as “Cold and tough. She couldn’t see their faces, couldn’t see if they even had faces, and this made her shiver from her scalp to her toes.” (281) I felt chills reading about what Adele had seen down in the tunnels.The Devils are no good, I thought. I still thought they might turn on somebody by the end. However, we learn during Adele’s experience and on several occasions after that the Devil’s actually were acting in good faith. They were there for Adele, and later they were there for Ricky. I found myself having to constantly remind myself, like Adele, “the face of goodness might surprise you.” (281) But I didn’t really believe that.
I think Victor Lavalle knew we (or maybe I) would fall into this trap. But since before the first chapter begins, he has also been actively working at making us understand how wrong this judgement is. Big Machine begins with a section entitled “We Like Monsters.” If we go way back to they day we started reading the book. We speculated what this might mean. Does this mean we are similar to monsters? Or that we have an affinity for monsters? The man that gets kicked off the bus that Ricky is on is preaching about war and God. When the passengers get angry at him for speaking, the man says, “Human beings are no damn good. We even worse than animals. We like… We like monsters.” (13) And then the passengers kick him off the bus, stranded in the cold Utica snow. I felt particularly sad reading this in the moment, but if you asked me about it 81 chapters and nearly 400 pages later, I couldn’t tell you what I had learned from that moment, and that the Swamp Angels were definitely the monsters.
But Lavalle did not want us to forget this moment. The man’s words are brought up multiple times toward the end, but I’d like to address one of them right now. Going back to that scene in the Devils Well when Adele sees the Swamp Angels, she inadvertently shoots Snooky Washburn. Furious with her, Solomon Clay screams, “Human beings are no damn good! You’ve finally taught me that, Adele…” “… God damn! We’re worse than animals! We’re like monsters.”(282) (Cue: Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Rep & Rev.”) Even the summary on the back of the books TELLS ME, that Big Machine is partly about “the monsters we carry within us.”
After building on my knowledge of “Bloodchild” and hearing several people refer to the monsters as not the monsters ‘we think we know,’ but rather the monsters inside us, I feel angry at myself for not fully believing that. I do not think Lavalle wants us to think we are vicious, inhuman beings. I do not think anyone in this book represents that. Rather, I think he wants us to be mindful of the fact that all have darker and more complex parts of us that can come out depending on the situations we are placed in. The parts of us that we may not be so proud of. But this is ok and we are not bad or devalued beings. When Ricky finishes telling of his adventures, all the good and the ‘bad,’ Ronny seems shocked. “Can people really change like that?” And Ricky, without flinching says, “yes.” (365)