By Savannah Burley, Hallie Edic, Iris Kahris, Kathleen McCarey, Marie Naudus, Isaac Schiller, and Owen Vincent
In Big Machine by Victor LaValle, a janitor named Ricky Rice receives a letter which includes a ticket and reminds him of a promise he made years ago. He leaves his job for the Washburn Library, where he joins a group called the Unlikely Scholars. The people in this group all share equally dark pasts that continue to haunt them in the present. The longer Ricky stays with the Unlikely Scholars, the more of Ricky’s dark past is revealed. As a child, Ricky’s family were members of a religious cult led by the Washerwomen that ultimately ended in the murder of several cult members and Ricky’s younger sister Daphne, which Ricky blames himself for. After the death of his sister and the arrest of his parents, Ricky traveled around upstate New York fighting drug addiction until he was convinced to run drugs for a friend of his. After transporting the drugs, he is kidnapped and imprisoned in a basement for days where he contemplates his life and his choices that led him there. Eventually, Ricky is singled out by the Unlikely Scholars’ enigmatic Dean to seek out Solomon Clay, a former Unlikely Scholar who has gone rogue, and kill him. He is accompanied by Adele Henry, another Unlikely Scholar, and Claude, their hired driver. Solomon Clay is a threat to the Unlikely Scholars’ secrecy. The Washburn Library originated when the Voice, a higher power, spoke to Judah Washburn and said “go forth and survive” (LaValle 91). Additionally, he is working for a Voice, which tells him “vengeance is mine” and pushes Solomon Clay towards the mission of killing people for the sake of a clean slate for the world (LaValle 181). While hunting for Solomon Clay and any evidence that could reveal the secret of the Washburn Library to the public in the sewers, Ricky is attacked by a Swamp Angel, leaving him to slowly lose strength and enter into a serious life-threatening condition. It is later revealed that Ricky, from this attack, is now pregnant and carrying the last angel on Earth. In their quest to kill Solomon Clay, Adele hesitantly opens up to Ricky about her own interaction with the Voice. Following the haunting memories of her sexual assault, Adele is left grappling with seeing the scenes repeated in her head. It is the Voice that breaks through these memories to speak with her. The Voice tells Adele four simple words: “Invite them back in” (LaValle 364). When Adele first reveals these words to Ricky, he is confused and does not understand their true meaning. It takes the death of Solomon Clay and his experience with the angel he is carrying to fully grasp what the Voice meant by these four words.
The ambiguous line of “Invite them back in” is open to interpretation and even prompts Ricky Rice to ask: “What the hell does that even mean” (LaValle 359). It is important to unpack these four simple words, focusing on the specific word choice and connotations. Specifically, there is a large difference between the words “invite them” and “let them” when choosing what to say. The word “invite” has more positive connotations and is more of an action with personal decisions behind it. The person has to make the conscious decision to invite someone back in, which can be difficult at times. Inviting a person back in can mean you have to forgive them and offer them a second chance or it makes yourself vulnerable to another person you may not fully trust. This differs from the simple term “let them” which adds a sort of apathy and distance from the other individual. This action can be begrudging and does not have to act as an olive branch of peace. It is easy to see how “invite them back in” can put a burden on the individual and can be a hard act to do. Inviting someone back in can also require you to have to deal with your own personal baggage, and forgive yourself for past mistakes. This challenge can be seen through the character of Ricky Rice and his own tumultuous journey with forgiving himself for his sister Daphne’s death and allowing himself to open up to Adele Henry.
The Voice telling Adele Henry to “Invite them back in” applies how forgiveness and redemption is a constant theme throughout Big Machine. This can be seen especially through Ricky Rice and his conscious choice to forgive those who wronged him in his formative years. Ricky faced a difficult childhood where he was wronged not only by his mother and father, but also by the women who ran the cult his family belonged to, the Washerwomen. Ricky notes an important memory he had with Rose, one of the cult leaders, where she teaches him forgiveness and the power of doubt. Rose speaks kindly to the young Ricky: “‘I’m sorry for hurting you, Ricky. I lost my temper. Will you forgive me?’” (LaValle 205). Ricky agrees to the woman’s request, forgiving her. During their embrace, Rose whispers to Ricky that “doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men” (LaValle 205). This doubt later allows Ricky to reexamine his relationship with others. This revelation gives him the opportunity to invite them back in and forgive them. By doubting his perception of who they are, he is better able to understand them as complex human beings who, like himself, are flawed. Upon reflection, Ricky writes to the unborn angel he is carrying that “there’s something greater than you in this world. I don’t know about other people, but I need to be reminded of this. And when I get too puffed up, when I invest too much in my own powers, I rely on what the Washerwomen taught me. Doubt grinds up my delusion. It makes me humble. And that’s a gift” (366). Although these women were dangerous and murdered those he loved, he is still able to find the good in them and their teachings, and no longer looks towards them with hate. Ricky chooses to invite them back into his life without the original baggage he carried whenever he thought back to them. Ricky is also able to reexamine the ill feelings towards his parents and remove the blame he has placed on them, by recognizing that they were only human as well. In his letter to the angel, Ricky reflects: “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). Ricky is able to heal and overcome his haunting past by learning to invite forgiveness in and lose any scorn he held against them.
Most importantly, Ricky learns to forgive himself, which can be an even harder task than forgiving others. He wants badly to be forgiven, as indicated by the effort he puts into being an Unlikely Scholar. As Ricky sits in the basement of a Belgian man’s house, starving to death and being surrounded by three cats who try to eat his soul, he thinks about his time with his old girlfriend, Gayle, who Ricky encouraged to get an abortion because he was, in his own words, a coward. He knows that she would not have gotten an abortion if he hadn’t indicated to her that he would be distant from her if she didn’t. In that basement, he begins to think back on this moment with Gayle and realize that while he was selfish in that moment, it should not be a defining factor in his life. He admits, “I know I’ve been selfish. But there’s still some good in me. I can stop being a coward. I can be brave. I promise” (LaValle 339), showing his willingness to forgive his past self and be better in the future. In forgiving himself at this moment, Ricky finds the strength to get out of that basement. Looking back, Ricky asks: “How much of my spirit did they get?… if I had to guess, I’d bet they gobbled up nearly half of me…. Someday I would have to reckon with it, but for now I was still alive. Left with, let’s say, 60 percent of my essence. Not enough soul to be careless with but, if I change, maybe enough to eventually tip the great scale” (LaValle 340). Much of Ricky’s emotional turmoil throughout the novel is finally solved when he learns that he has the power to forgive not only those who have wronged him, but also himself.
The sentiment of “Invite them back in” can be seen throughout other readings in the Black Apocalyptic Fiction course. This acceptance of another person and inviting them into your own inner world is a central feature in Nnedi Okorafor’s novel, Lagoon. Ayodele, an “alien” who comes to Lagos to help the human world, “‘spoke of her people being catalysts of change. Wherever they go, they bring change’” (Okorafor 158). In order for Ayodele to stir this change though, humans must accept her and her people and allow for the change. Ayodele needs the help of the three humans she connects with: Adaora, Agu, and Anthony. It is because the three of them accept Ayodele and the truth behind what she is saying, that they can stir change for the city of Lagos. Ayodele’ reassures the people of Lagos so they feel comfortable with her, and tells them that her kind “‘do not seek [their] oil or [their] other resources’” but they are there “‘to nurture’” the human world (Okorafor 113). Ayodele’s attempt to come across as non-threatening and a source of good comes from her desire to have the humans invite her into their lives and accept her help. This was first shown in how Adaora invites Ayodele into her own home and looks after the well-being of her new extraterrestrial friend. While Agu, Anthony, and Adaora were initially met with doubt, they ultimately trust in Ayodele’s cause and assist her in having the people of Lagos agree to her help.
The Voice’s commandment to “Invite them back in” can also be seen in the ending of Pym by Mat Johnson. As the only remaining survivors of their expedition to the Arctic, Chris and Garth sail to the island of Tsalal, supposedly the only place left on Earth untouched by the greed and colonialism of white culture. As they see the natives of the island waving to them, they interpret the action as an invitation to land and join them in their Black, utopian world. While there are certainly other, less positive interpretations of the islanders’ wave, the perception of the wave as inviting presents the opportunity to connect invitation and forgiveness in Big Machine and Lagoon to healing similar wounds in Pym. Protagonist Chris Jaynes spends the novel searching for the island of Tsalal in order to reach both an ancestral home and a world in which he is not a minority, something that he has never experienced. He thinks that it “is an American thing: to wish longingly for a romanticized ancestral home. This is a Black American thing: to wish to be in the majority within a nation you could call your own, to wish for the complete power of that nation behind you” (Johnson 30). Prior to undertaking the voyage to find the island of Tsalal, the place where he could exist as a majority without suffering the effects of racism, Chris lost his job as an English professor due to his pushback on ideas he felt were racist. The president of the college denied that Chris was fired for refusing to serve on the college’s diversity committee, but Chris felt like his only purpose on campus was as a diversity hire and that his expansion into other roles was the reason he was denied tenure and fired (Johnson 13). In addition to losing his job, he experiences microaggressions and constant frustration living in a world so ingrained with racism, such as his inability to become comfortable in one self-image. He notes to himself that he is never consistently identified as one race due to his light skin; he is immediately identified as black by Mrs. Karvel, but he realizes that others may assume he is not black and experiences constant uncertainty as to how he will be perceived (Johnson 239). These constant racial jabs constitute a kind of wound similar to Ricky and Adele’s regrettable pasts in Big Machine. Inviting others back into their lives and forgiving themselves and others for past mistakes allow Ricky and Adele to move on to another, better version of themselves as they experience their own personal apocalypses. In Chris’ case, the invitation from the native islanders of Tsalal gives Chris a new world to live in, one where he is a part of the majority like he has always wanted. Similarly to healing personal, emotional wounds, becoming part of the world he has always sought will allow Chris to heal the wounds caused by his existence in a dominantly white world. In this way, inviting someone in serves as a way to heal in both Pym and Big Machine, suggesting that inviting someone in good faith, even someone who has wronged you, is the first step to fixing a problem or healing old wounds.
Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed is also useful when talking about “invite them back in.” The novel centers around two immortal beings, Anyanwu and Doro, who are simultaneously in conflict with one another (as they constantly disagree on how their colony should be run and their people should be treated) while being drawn to one another (as they seem to be the only immortal beings in the story). While the “normal” people live and die around them, they live through each generation, continuing their lives and keeping up their colonies. Because they are the only immortals, their presence in each other’s lives is constant and undying, which causes tension in their relationship as Doro constantly is chasing and ruining Anyanwu’s colonies. Towards the end of the novel, Anyanwu is planning to die in her sleep until Doro comes to her and begs her not to end her life because he needs her. She tells Doro that he needs to change his ways if he expects her to continue her life with him. In the epilogue, Butler writes, “No matter where she went, she would live. She would not leave him” (298), signifying Anyanwu’s acceptance of Doro’s compromises and her ability to invite him back into her life. It would have been easier for Anyanwu to end her life and finally escape Doro’s grasp on her life. Doro has constantly ruined everything she has made, killed her friends and family, and hunted her down when she went missing. To invite Doro back in was a sacrifice and a vulnerable moment for the protagonist. She needed to be vulnerable enough to trust that Doro would not break his promise to change for her.
Andrew Santana Kaplan’s “Notes Towards (Inhabiting) The Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought” examines afro-pessimism in relation to how society views anti-blackness. Throughout Kaplan’s work he depicts the influences of the Middle Passage and chattel enslavement on modern day society and how the harsh realities of white history have lasting negative effects today. Kaplan argued, “‘The terms free and black do not just present political problems of citizenship, rights and inclusion, but also serious ontological problems, since the boundaries of ontology – between human and property and freedom and unfreedom– are thrown into crisis of the free black.’ (27). The fundamental ontological problems that the “free” Black presents leads to Warren to make a decisive distinction: between emancipation and freedom. The conflation of this judicial term with this ontological term is mistaken insofar as the Black’s emancipation from slavery in no way yields access to human freedom. This is why the worldly privileging of citizenship, rights, and inclusion fundamentally reinforces our constitutive forgetfulness of Black
being” (73). This quote from Kaplan highlights the important distinction between freedom and emancipation for the modern Black person which relates to Big Machine when Ricky and Adele are on the run; he says, “Was it the Washburn Library or the Church of Clay? I don’t know but I’m afraid both are after us” (LaValle 360), which indicates the fear surrounding being “emancipated” but not yet free. Furthermore, if Ricky and Adele were truly free they would not have to be in hiding. Additionally, “invite them back in” relates to Kaplan’s work as well because it assumes that you have the ability to invite some in, which assumes that you, yourself are “in” when in reality Kaplan argues that Black beings are also on the outside of society because of foundational inequalities.
Big Machine highlights the important commandment of “invite them back in,” which can be prevalently seen through Ricky Rice and Adele Henry’s development throughout the book, and having to accept their pasts and forgive themselves, and even the others around them, while trying to fight for redemption through the course of the novel; fighting for themselves, and the things and people they love. Redemption and forgiveness is not only a major theme throughout Big Machine, but the other novels read throughout this course on Black Apocalyptic Fiction, thanks to Big Machine as the final bang for the wrap up of this course. In Mat Johnson’s Pym, Chris Jaynes struggles as a minority in both the Antarctic world and the teaching world, learning to overcome the obstacles in his life and redeem through the struggle of no longer being a teacher. In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Anyanwu has to learn to overcome Doro’s control, learning how to thrive as her own being and redeem herself and her powers. Doro and Anywanu are both healing from their own obstacles from their past lives, and learning how to live on in the world in their uprising. In Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, the city has struggled with acts of oppression, living within a city of chaos, learning to overcome the obstacles of these new beings in their city. In An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon, Aster is faced with the oppression of people from the upper decks, and struggles with the passing of her mother. All of these are instances where we see instances of characters redeeming themselves, and learning to forgive and inviting others in. Victor LaValle not only creates this closing message within his novel, but opens up this commandment within the other novels of the Black Apocalyptic course. Also, teaching us readers the important messages as well. No, it is not easy to move past the things that make up our history, as seen by the two characters Adele Henry and Ricky Rice, but learning to forgive ourselves and others, and learning how to work through those personal problems, in a good faith manner, and working towards forgiveness and redemption.
The phrase “invite them back in” indicates a command for Adele Henry and Ricky Rice to invite not only the people who have wronged them back in, but other people who may need their help back in. When I read it, this line seemed to be asking Adele and Ricky to be inviting the world back in after it had wronged them in their youth. In order to lead more fulfilling lives, Ricky and Adele would need to try to forgive the world around them for hurting them when they were the most vulnerable and allow themselves to be vulnerable once more.This idea of forgiveness is not something that is simply contained in literature, but something that can directly relate to everyone’s life. Inviting people back into your life after they have wronged you, or you have wronged them, is hard, but sometimes a necessary part of life. In all of the books we have read in this course, the characters have had to make the difficult choice to invite people back into their lives that maybe they did not want to, but needed to. This message is a call out to anyone who has been hurt in their lives and isolated themselves from the world around them in fear of being hurt again. Just as Ricky, Adele, and the other characters in the novels throughout our course had to overcome their fear of being wronged by those around them, individuals can take away this idea and understand that vulnerability and inviting people back in is not a side effect of being weak, but rather an indication of being strong. In Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, Anyanwu makes herself vulnerable again and again to Doro as they are going to spend the rest of eternity together and in the long run, it is easier for her to invite him back into her life than it would be to keep outrunning him. In Pym, Chris is wronged by the system around him as he is fired from his job for not wanting to be the face of the diversity committee. Because of this, Chris seems to get angry at the world around him and act out because of this, but soon learns to invite people and the world back in, especially when he comes across the fated island of Tsalal. If he continued to distrust the people around him after his adventures, he would not have been able to find Tsalal and (hopefully) be accepted by the people of the island at the end of the novel. In An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, Aster and the people on her deck are continually let down and exploited by the people of the upper decks, but that does not stop her from inviting people in and trying to forgive those around her in order to better her situation. Throughout the course, the characters of all the books show their strength through their ability to adapt to the world around them and allow the world to be invited back into their lives even when it has failed them.
All in all, Big Machine poses an interesting question to the reader, asking to reflect on individual and collective forgiveness and redemption. Collective redemption and forgiveness is an interesting theme to examine through the lens of Black Apocalyptic Fiction because reckoning with the violence and oppression that Black Americans have faced throughout history is a massive concept without an easily identifiable solution. Kaplan’s article delves into the specific details of confronting and challenging the social norms upheld by the inequality and oppression that the United States was built upon; however, even this article cannot offer a solution for reckoning and solving the structural and social injustices and inequalities. Throughout the novels we have read this semester, different authors have shown redemption and forgiveness in slightly different ways, but all falling under the broader umbrella of confronting the past as a way to move forward. For example, in Big Machine Ricky had to confront his personal history in order to forgive himself and move forward. Additionally, in An Unkindness of Ghosts, Aster has to confront her own history with her mother and upbringing, as well as the collective history of the ship in order to move forward and be free from the constraints of the social order inflicted upon her. Throughout this semester’s work, it has become clear that there is no straightforward answer as to how to move forward, but that confronting the past is an opportunity for forgiveness and redemption, either of yourself, another individual or a collective.
By having the final book of the course be Big Machine, a novel that encourages the reader to ponder the phrase “Invite them back in,” it is encouraging the class to not only reflect on the current novel we are focusing on, but to invite back in the previous novels we have read in class and to put the novels in conversation with one another. The course Black Apocalyptic Fiction has provided us with the tools to make connections among the novels we have read with one another and also to our own world. When approaching all of these texts together with good faith actions, each novel works together to enhance the understanding of what it means when a novel is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic fiction’s focus is on the end of worlds and creating a new slate. This is seen in Ricky Rice transforming his own world by forgiving those who have harmed him and by allowing the painful memories to no longer burden him. These personal transformations in redefining an individual’s outlooks on life can also be seen in Ted Street’s final acceptance of death in American Desert. These examples show that sometimes, the apocalypse and end of the world can be individual. The readings in this class have proven that the end of the world can in the simplest sense be the end of only one person’s world, their own understanding seeing a renaissance, and reshaping what they at one time saw as their own truth.
“Invite them back in,” the final command given by the Voice in Victor LaValle’s Big Machine is not only applicable to the novel but the course as a whole. From Wild Seed all the way until Big Machine we have dealt with apocalyptic fiction while looking through a lens of racism and apocalypse as presented by Andrew Santana Kaplan’s article “Notes Towards (Inhabiting) The Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought.” The phrase “invite them back in” has a positive connotation as opposed to “let them back in” the phrase forces readers to take a step back and think about who has been pushed to the side and who needs to be invited back in. Thinking about this in terms of racism, I think the goal of “inviting” people back in means to give up years of prejudices and invite people to participate in everyday life without feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome. This can ultimately be applied to every work we have covered this semester: Anyanwu has to invite Doro back into her life to join him, Ted has to confess to his wife and make an effort to invite her back into his life, Aster has to work alongside Theo against the Ship to get back to earth, and lastly how everyone in Lagoon is forced to invite the garden eggs in. Working through the books in this class has helped me to look at the apocalypse in terms of both novels and real life. Forgiveness serves as a catalyst for change in order to help work towards equality in the future.
The Voice’s command to Adele in Big Machine highlights a throughline that is present in so many black apocalyptic novels. Adele and Ricky’s character development throughout Big Machine culminates in their acceptance of past events and their forgiveness of those around them, and this represents a significant step in healing from their traumatic pasts. While other characters in similar black apocalyptic novels do not focus so heavily on their pasts, they all have similar trauma hanging over their heads. In Nnedi Okarafor’s Lagoon, the citizens of Lagos are constantly troubled by the corruption and inequalities of the city and the nation of Nigeria, as well as their unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. In Mat Johnson’s Pym, Chris Jaynes constantly experiences microaggressions and the consequences of being a minority in a white world, both in Manhattan and in Antarctica. In Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, Doro’s immortality and lack of a true companion drives him to attempt huge undertakings that span decades. All of these characters are suffering from their own kinds of wounds, whether they are mental, emotional, or physical. Big Machine’s message that active invitation and forgiveness, of others or oneself, is the way to healing provides another way to look at all of these other novels. The city of Lagos in Lagoon is eventually healed by their invitation and acceptance of the “alien” race, with the entire city, despite their differences, smelling the scent of garden eggs. Based on the actions of the islanders, Chris assumes he is welcomed to the island of Tsalal, a place where he can finally stop existing as a minority and suffering the effects of being a black man in a white world. Doro’s invitation to Anyanwu to join him as an equal at the end of Wild Seed is what finally satiates his need for a real companion. In all of these black apocalyptic novels, it is the invitation in good faith that heals the characters and allows them to move on with their lives and escape whatever has been plaguing them. The closing message of Big Machine is therefore not only a new way to view the conclusions of other black apocalyptic novels, but also provides commentary on how readers can solve their own problems that have been plaguing them in the same way that Adele and Ricky’s pasts plague them; a good place to start would be honest forgiveness and an invitation in good faith.
The command to “invite them back in” is emblematic of the Black Apocalyptic texts we have read this semester and their ultimately hopeful perspectives. Although the apocalypse inherently requires destruction, according to Andrew Santana Kaplan, the novels we have read this semester all suggest that a better world can be created through care and compassion toward fellow beings. The task of inviting them back in is not easy, nor is it usually pleasant. In Pym, Big Machine, An Unkindness of Ghosts, the protagonists seek community where they might not find it—with the people of Tsalal, the Unlikely Scholars, or the other people on Aster’s ship, respectively. While they are not guaranteed a better world, they are aware that they are “strong enough to lift others” in their worlds (LaValle 364). These Black Apocalyptic novels are futuristic, but they ultimately express their hopes for creating a better, more equitable world today— a time during which Black and other marginalized people are the victims of world-shattering destruction.
Group Conclusion: The overarching theme of the group’s conclusions all amounts to the idea that the phrase “invite them back in” is applicable to remembering and connecting the readings of the course through the context of individual and collective histories. This shows that although we read these texts at the very beginning of the class, returning to them allows us to make connections with the current text, Big Machine, and to further our understanding of apocalyptic fiction. Reflecting on the connections between the books throughout this semester, it is clear that reckoning with your past is a catalyst for moving forward in life. We saw this theme take shape in different circumstances, but ultimately the themes of the novels culminate in a clear connection between working through your personal or collective experiences and inviting yourself or others back in. Overall, this course as a whole has helped us to look back at the past to forgive and move on towards a better future. To “invite them back in” is a radical step toward creating a society which is more inclusive and creative than it is exclusive and destructive. This maxim ushers us toward thinking about the necessity of a strong collective supporting people through the difficult personal tests of the apocalypse, and of forgiveness being granted for individuals when they falter.