Written by: Lauryn Bennett, Makayla Garrison, Sage Kearney, Mckinley Skala, Marisa Greaney, Jenna Mcfarland, Katie Lyons
Big Machine, written by Victor LaValle, is a story about Ricky Rice’s comeback from his childhood trauma of witnessing his older sister among several children, murdered by a Christian cult led by the Washerwomen. As an adult with a seemingly plain life, Ricky is mysteriously summoned to the Washburn Library in Vermont, where he works alongside other African Americans whose lives have all similarly but distinctively, fallen apart. During Ricky’s journey, there is a man on his bus that is preaching God and yelling at passengers. He is eventually thrown off, after regarding humans as monsters. Ricky considers the possibility of him being invited back on but does not view it positively. Upon arrival at the library, Ricky discovers that their collective purpose is to comb through newspapers gathering information and finding what does not belong. Ricky learns from the Dean about The Voice, something akin to a god among the people of the Washburn Library, and the reason he was brought to the library. Over time, Ricky is promoted to a field scout in California, learns the history of The Washburn Library, and is partnered with Adele Henry. They are tasked with finding and killing Solomon Clay, a rogue “Unlikely Scholar”, which is what the organization calls themselves. We learn of Adele’s history of prostitution and sexual assault and the murder of Mr. Washburn, the leader of the Library organization. By the end of the novel, Adele and Ricky have succeeded in killing Solomon Clay, and decide to listen to the commandment that the Voice told Adele all those years ago. The command, “Invite them back in” (364), served as their guide to helping the outcasts of America integrate back into society by overcoming the controls that hold them back.
Big Machine is a novel that demonstrates faith and doubt as contrasting factors that are both influenced by control. “Invite them back in” (364), the commandment spoken to Adele by the Voice, has a complex meaning that was specifically and intentionally constructed by LaValle to help the reader analyze how control is Big Machine in the novel. There is a great deal of faith and trust behind “inviting” somebody or something into your home, your life, and your world. Whether it be through a conversation or a literal invitation into a space, the component of faith is necessary to go through with the invitation. Throughout the novel, characters are faced with the challenges and decisions of “inviting” others into discussions, places, and experiences while battling personal ordeals from their history. Adele battles with her trauma of sexual assault and her alarming murder of Mr. Washburn. Ricky battles with his addiction to heroin as well as his brutal experiences with the Washerwomen. Ricky explains, “Heroin, like I said before, robs you of your empathy”(LaValle, 110). Heroin had made Ricky lose pieces of himself but since he was sober, all of these emotions were intact. These battles with such traumatic history contribute to the doubt that one may feel when determining whether to invite someone or something “back” into their home, their life, and their world again. It takes time for characters like Ricky and Adele to place trust in people when they have been harshly betrayed before by loved ones and strangers alike.
The first time the reader sees the phrase, “invite them back in” is in the beginning of the novel when a homeless man is kicked off the bus. Ricky assumes, “The guy I guess felt underwhelmed by the gesture. Maybe he thought she’d invite him back in. I thought she might have too. I wouldn’t have been happy about it but I would have understood” (LaValle 14). Ricky understood it was the right thing to do, to let the homeless man back on the bus to escape the cold, but he still had a lack of trust in the man for his crazed preaching. “Invite them back in” is also the commandment that The Voice spoke to Adele the first time when she was in the Devils’ Well with Snooky Washburn and Solomon Clay. Adele did not reveal to Ricky the four words that were spoken to her until the end of the novel after he had killed Solomon Clay. Ricky’s first impression of the phrase was, “The command made no damn sense at all” (LaValle, 359). Ricky posed questions of “Invited who back in?”, “Invite them back in what?”, “Had I invited them in before?”.
It was not until Ricky and Adele spoke with their co-worker Ronny about his gambling problems and losing his family that the meaning behind the Voice’s command to Adele finally made sense to Ricky. Ricky explains, “Maybe the Voice knew it could, it should, demand more of us than mere self-preservation. We were strong enough to lift others” (LaValle, 364). Ricky understood that the Voice deemed himself and Adele capable of helping others. They would use their story and their experiences to inspire others to work through their difficulties, whatever they may be, and rise above them. Solomon Clay would view his mission, though destructive, as helping the poor around him realize they deserve a greater life; “I got in the mud to dig out my men. To convince them they deserved better lives. I put in work…I got passed over…The poor will always be with us”. They would use Solomon Clay’s mission of helping the poor and the unfortunate in a constructive way rather than a destructive way, “No matter where you go, poor people have the capacity to endure. Some people even compliment us on it, as if endurance is all we can achieve” (Lavalle ). They would work to take down the Big Machine of corruption and poverty, and they pursue all of this in an optimistic and humane way.
The phrase “Invite them back in”, places the consideration of forgiveness in contrast with the idea of control. There is power in forgiving something as it ends the cycle of resentment and reduces the chances of resulting animosity being passed on from person to person, and generation to generation. Once introduced to this command Ricky soon after reflects on his past relationship with his family, “It’s good to keep in mind that your parents felt powerless too. You can’t forgive them unless you do. And I forgive them now” (LaValle, 363). Rice turns these four words into a means to exercise control over the circumstances that have affected him from childhood through to adulthood. He also reflects on his childhood throughout the novel and the events in his past rather than shutting them out. This allows for the realization that reflection and acceptance as a way to gain control is necessary to better the future. The idea of destroying the past as a way to truly right the world has been posited in the essay “Notes Towards (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought” by Andrew Santana Kaplan,
Apocalypticism is at first, not concerned with changing [i.e., reforming] the structure of society, but directs its gaze away from this world. If revolution were to mean only replacing an existing society [i.e., the World] with a better one, then the connection between apocalypticism and revolution is not evident. But if revolution means opposing the totality of this world with a new totality that comprehensively finds anew in the way that it negates, namely, in terms of the basic foundations, then apocalypticism is by nature revolutionary. (9)’ (Kaplan 81).
Here, it is inferred that to truly have a better world, the essence of the current world ,must end and a new one must begin. This suggested as necessary so as to have entirely erased all concepts of the wrongs done by the former during its existence. However, when considering Big Machine, ignoring the past as a way of destroying it in an attempt to begin anew does not remove Ricky’s trauma and the effects that have taken hold on his life. Forgiveness provides a means for coping and moving on from the events that have caused him great conflict. Absolution begins the healing process for Ricky, as he is faced with an inevitable birth. He is choosing to not perpetuate this system with his own offspring.
Wild Seed, a novel written by Octavia Butler, draws on the themes of forgiveness and doubt that correlates to the meaning behind Ricky’s interpretation of the phrase, “Invite them back in”. Doro betrays Anyanwu multiple times throughout the novel by breeding her with multiple partners and killing people for power instead of survival. When Anyanwu initially refused to breed with Doro’s son, Issac, Doro calmly explained, “You know your children don’t have your strength. I’ll get what I want from them, and their children will be as much mine as the people here” (Butler, 133). Anyanwu knows Doro to be a being with a superiority complex and she cannot trust him because of this. Doro’s condescending dialogue, narrow mindset, and discriminatory nature leads Anyanwu to run away and start a new life without Doro. When Doro found Anyanwu, Anyanwu had a difficult time inviting Doro back into her life. Anyanwu thinks, “She had run from him, done what no one else could do… yet instead of killing her at once, he seemed to be beginning again with her – giving her a chance to accept him as though nothing had happened” (Butler, 225). Anyanwu goes back and forth between forgiving Doro for his wrongdoings and continually asking him not to harm her people. Anyanwu, like Ricky, invited Doro back in for a multitude of reasons. One being that she, like Ricky, could look out for the people that were weaker than Doro and could not look out for themselves. Anyanwu worked hard to protect those around her, and her selfless character helped turn Doro from a selfish and brutal leader to a compassionate and more humane being. The phrase, “Invite them back in” proved to be a successful guide for both Ricky in Big Machine and Anyanwu in Wild Seed.
This semester we have dove into apocalyptic novels that allowed us to make our interpretations of what apocalypse means. We used our skills to dissect these readings as a class and figure out where the apocalypses occurred in the readings and if they were necessary or unfortunate. Good faith was put to the test in these texts and in most cases when someone did not act in good faith they were not able to be at peace. In“The Big Machine” Ricky Rice’s life is completely changed after his Washburn Library experience. Ricky and Adele both had life-altering trauma that had to carry with them for years using alternative methods to overcome this trauma. After their journey, they learn about forgiveness, although what has happened to them is unforgivable, this gives them a chance to move on from the past and go forward. When the voices stated; “invite them back in” this was the Voice giving them an answer as to how to go on with their lives, despite everything they endured in their lifetime. The word invite implies that they have the power to get closure from their trauma. Although their trauma is not their fault, it is their responsibility to heal.
This course has broadened our ideas about what we thought we knew about the word Apocalypse. The six novels we read throughout the semester transported us to the unimaginable, constantly revolving around characters who depended on their faith and on their doubt. One thing I noticed was how multiple characters in various novels were met with needing to make a decision to rely on their faith to persevere or allow the doubt to change their perspective and make them question everything. Each of the characters had the opportunity to engage with other characters and/or spiritual figures in these instances where control and the importance of a choice can alter the rest of their lives. The control allows for the characters to forgive whatever hurt them, they question or doubt and lead to the next steps in their lives. Like Ricky in Big Machine, we are often met with decisions in our lives where our faith and doubt are both tested for oneself to take their next step to a better them.
Throughout the span of this course, the class has read and deciphered many novels and even a few articles. The exercise of reading and then later discussing the pieces in class has broadened our thinking as a class, especially towards the concept of “apocalypse”. The discussions along with our own readings helped us not necessarily create but develop our own definition of the word and concepts. Through these newly acquired skills we as a class have gained the ability to recognize what the apocalyptic event is in these novels. Within Big Machine, main character Ricky Rice lives through and explains many traumatic events that have happened in his life, either before the events of the novel or during. He then discovers the concept of forgiveness and only living one life. With the realization of this Ricky becomes forgiving and the phrase “invite them back in” becomes something that he can sort of live by.
Throughout the semester, we have discussed all aspects that come with good and bad faith through a collection of six novels. These novels have helped develop our thinking in relation to the term Black Apocalyptic Fiction, and how they have allowed us the opportunity to develop our own interpretations as to what we believe it means.. In our most recent book, Big Machine, we see Ricky Rice’s Life being changed after an experience he encountered. He carries on his life with such trauma, and realizes that every person in this world only lives once. Ricky becomes a forgiving person and by doing this he understands to idolize the better. Over time, we learn to allow ourselves to develop new trusts and develop new relationships. In Big Machine, the quote “invite them back in” was being spoken to them by the voice, telling them to carry on and continue to move forward. In our daily lives, we are put through situations where our faith in good and bad is often doubted, and we are put to the test of choosing to push forward. In this course, it teaches us how to grow and learn from our experiences.
This course encompasses all and any aspects of faith, good and bad, impacting the concept of an apocalypse. Making our way through various apocalyptic novels written by an esteemed collection of Black authors, we have explored the different ways to consider a world ending event. One thing that stuck in my mind in this consideration was that apocalypses are almost always beyond one’s control. Rather, they tend to control those who experience them: physical, mental, and emotional responses are all influenced and changed when we go through our personal apocalypse. We begin to put faith into things and people we never trusted before, and to doubt everything we did trust and thought to be true. In Big Machine, this idea is brought into a more spiritual context, and those who originally put their faith in their religious beliefs turn their faith toward themselves, and how they can improve upon a broken past. When push comes to shove, the only one who has the power to “Invite them back in” is whoever is doing the inviting, and allowing forgiveness to take control in place of bitterness and doubt.
Over the course of the semester, the class has read and analyzed six texts that interpret the theme of Black apocalyptic fiction in their own ways. From Big Machine, one interpretation of Black apocalyptic fiction is that it refers to the faith that people have not in religion, but in changing themselves for the better. A human only has one life to live, and Ricky realizes this at the end of the novel as he discovers the true meaning behind the Voice’s commandment to Adele. In a way, Ricky wishes to be the voice that guides people through their traumas and difficult experiences, just as The Voice led Judah across the world in an exceptionally dangerous time for Black people. Dr. McCoy’s course teaches its students to learn from and grow from each text. Big Machine educates its readers on the importance of not giving up on people who have submitted to the controls in their life and to instead help them regain control and take back their life.
The phrase, “invite them back in” poses a contradiction to the voice Andrew Santana Kaplan. The viewpoint declaring that apocalypticism refers to total destruction as a rebirth and correction of the irreparable wrongs that have occurred within this world is defined by Ricky Rice’s ability to forgive and work past his trauma and events of his past. He is forgiving so as not to allow the possibility for these events to happen again. Total destruction implies that there will be a forgetting, and therefore a possibility for these events equally as bad, if not worse to occur again. As the concluding novel in the series of books consumed within this course, it allows us, as analytical weaponry, to recognize that all of the apocalyptic elements in previous books would have the opportunity to occur again if reset from scratch (within each of their separate universes). The multitude of traumatic experiences that Ricky has faced throughout his life can be compared to the different apocalyptic elements within the previous novels. Ricky ultimately chooses to forgive and move forwards as a means to recognize and halt the negativity that has occurred once and for all. Students learn history as a way to recognize the faults of the past and to push past them, while remembering how to not let detrimental events happen once more. Ricky’s forgiveness is the ultimate decision to push past the doubt and capitalize on the events of history as a way to serve the greater good. The angel he will birth would have the potential to massively affect the world. The circumstances of the angel he is birthing make it easier to review this novel’s finale in a larger context relative to other works. Ricky’s ability to forgive, serves a greater purpose that goes beyond his own personal healing.