Immortality, Decapitation, Heroin, & Aliens: Markers of the Apocalypse

Lidabel Avila, Adelia Callear, Kendall Cruise, Madolley Donzo, Marlee Fancett, Kya Primm, Nicholas Parks, Maddie Butler

Ricky Rice, a former drug addict who works at the Utica train station receives a bus ticket––an invitation––to make good on a promise forged in Cedar Rapids. After making his trip to the secret foundation of the Washburn Library, he is employed to uncover the whereabouts of the Voice—a mysterious speaker that seldom reveals itself and whispers advice to the Scholars of the Library. Here, Ricky is later promoted to go on a trip West with another scholar, Adele Henry, to halt rogue scholar Solomon Clay’s plans of revanchism. After a mission to a sewer to find other possible secrets, Ricky is attacked by a mysterious figure that Adele refers to as one of “The Devils of the Marsh.” Throughout the time afterwards, Ricky grows weaker, eventually going to the hospital where he discovers that the symptoms of his sickness are synonymous with those of pregnancy. Him and Adele further track down Clay while Ricky has multiple flashbacks to his troubled past. He grew up in a heavily religious cult, worshiping the Washerwomen’s teachings that stated how other churches are all corrupt. Eventually, the Washerwomen’s followers found themselves in conflict with the police. Facing their end, the Washerwomen begin killing, or “sacrificing,” their followers to “save” them, including Ricky’s sister Daphne, whom he unknowingly shoved in front of him in a panic to escape. Later in his life, he made his way to Cedar Rapids to meet up with his childhood friend Wilfred, who also suffered from the trauma at the hands of the cult. This ended up being a set-up where he was trapped in a basement with stray cats who eventually began to seem to eat his soul, causing him to gather up the strength to escape. Additionally, we find out about Adele’s eventful and traumatic past where she was sexually assaulted, heavily tortured, and almost killed. She was then employed by the Library to help them find signs of The Voice, and eventually stop Snooky Washburn from selling the Library. In her mission to do the latter, she, along with Solomon Clay,  travel to Garland to convince Snooky not to go through with the sale. The trio travels into the Devil’s Well where they meet the Swamp Angels who work for the Voice. The Angels try to get Adele to shoot Clay but instead, for the sake of the Library, she shoots Snooky. The Angels, in the midst of the chaos, are subsequently killed. She later hears the Voice revealing a message to her which we discover is “Invite them back in.” Going back to the present, Ricky comes to the conclusion that he was impregnated by a Swamp Angel, and he is unsure if he will survive the delivery. Adele and Ricky then find Clay and his followers about to sacrifice themselves for their cause. Ricky goes to kill Soloman and two more Angels appear to help. The Angels sacrifice themselves to finish Clay’s death, prompting Adele and Ricky to leave. This sacrifice results in Ricky being the carrier for the last Angel. 

Upon hearing the message from the Voice, Ricky Rice exclaims, “What the hell does that even mean?”, prompting him to analyze both himself and his society—but more specifically, the Unlikely Scholars he surrounds himself with (LaValle 359). We learn that the Voice instructs Adele to “Invite them back in,” calling into question who the Voice is referring to, and how doing so might work to fulfill the goals of the Library (LaValle 364). We believe this articulation is referring to the redemption of multiple figures throughout the novel, which can be seen as a recurring theme that influences the character’s decisions. The most prominent instance would be the return of the Angels and the different responses the characters have to them, primarily reacting to their appearances. The vile and unusual appearances of the Swamp Angels sparks a plethora of emotions, ranging anywhere from fear, hatred, admiration, and even love. Adele is then reminded of the truth that the different appearances offer, which is that “the face of goodness may surprise you” (LaValle 265). This interaction lays the necessary groundwork for the later themes within the novel, reminding the audience that what may be visible to you is not the complete story, and maybe you have to look beyond your biased perceptions. Additionally, the Unlikely Scholars start off their redemption journey by breaking away from their criminal pasts, attempting to move forward from the time they were seen as despised and rejected by society. Due to their harsh rejection from society, they begin to internalize those ideas and project them onto others who also covet being perceived as  “normal.” Solomon Clay goes on to describe human beings by stating, “The despised become despicable. God damn! We’re worse than animals! We’re like monsters” (LaValle 282). On the journey of the Unlikely Scholar’s redemption, they abandon the past that held them back, however, many additionally reject the Angels on the basis of their appearance alone. They have become jaded and “despicable” in the eyes of the Voice because they refuse to look beyond their first impressions and see the power and asylum those beings bring. Ricky instead breaks from the typical pattern of the Scholars and accepts the help the Angels are willing to bring, despite their appearance. He begins to have a revelation and recognizes that objectively attractive people—such as Solomon Clay—may not possess the goodness that society expects of them. The ability to look beyond appearances speaks largely to a redemption arc, further connected to the idea of forgiving someone by seeing the situation from their perspective. 

The redemption arc throughout the novel, can be seen most intimately through the main character Ricky Rice as he considers his childhood traumas and how they’ve impacted the man he has grown to be and also the man he wants to become. As a child, Ricky Rice grew up within the cult of the Washerwomen and, as part of their religious duties, his parents had to go on “commissions,”  in which they would spread information about the cult door-to-door. When his mother was late to return from her commission because of an accident, Ricky’s father was “eager to go on his assignment and wasn’t willing to wait,” desiring “his full hundred and fifty days away,” since there would be “No children demanding” (LaValle 329). Ricky reflects that “Time alone is pornography for people with families,” which foreshadows the trauma Ricky has when his father must return from his commission to pick his child up from an orphanage and, after a brief lunch, drops him back off, briefly intending to leave him there before retunring to pick Ricky back up and bring him home (LaValle 329). Later in life, when in the face of death with the two spiritual cats chewing away at his soul through his leg, Ricky remembers this moment in his childhood and considers that “Leaving me behind wasn’t what had made my father feel guilty” and that “He’d felt guilty because leaving me behind had been so easy” (LaValle 338).  Ricky gains the realization that “the cats stopped eating. Not when I thought about what my father had done to me, or even when I admitted what I’d done to Gayle, but when I asked myself if I was satisfied with the life I’d led” (LaValle 339). As Ricky is battling to live and feeling unsatisfied with his life, he’s seeking redemption and he expresses, “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). Ricky explains his inability to forgive himself until he finds the courage to forgive his past and his parents, he says,  “You can’t forgive them unless you do. And I forgive them now” (LaValle 363). In order for Ricky Rice to move forward with his plans of redemption and individual growth, he must be challenged with the task of forgiving those who have taken part in his past traumas, as well as himself for the perceived mistakes he’s made in his life. By following Ricky’s redemption arc, readers see the expansion of his values concerning forgiveness and redemption, and he begins to see how these are applied to the society he lives in as well, which the angels seem to suggest with the line “Invite them back in.” This can be seen through many big machines, like the acceptance of the Unlikely Scholars into the Washburn Library, the homeless population by Solomon Clay, and the Angels—which have been perceived as devils thus far in the novel by humans. Highlighting aspects of redemption in this story allows us to gain insight on both the struggles Ricky encounters with forgiving, and an understanding of how redemption and forgiveness play a larger role in an apocalypse.

In the context of apocalyptic events, a common thread amongst the course readings for this semester has been the idea that an apocalypse proposes an opportunity for the chance to be ‘redeemed’. Andrew Santana Kaplan defines an apocalypse as “commonly associated with the end of the World, [but] etymologically, it primarily means to un-cover…” (Kaplan 81). To uncover something or a world can then be paralleled to the concept of redemption: to redeem a world, after it’s been destroyed, to a ‘healed’ version of what it once was. Linked to this definition of apocalypse in Kaplan’s essay, is the concept of ontological identity, specifically in relation to Blackness, and how it “ is necessary for the redemption of degraded Humanity” (Kaplan 76). Here Kaplan draws attention to the connections between recognizing and embracing one’s unnormalized identity and how that can assist in redeeming beings that have been harmed by the world around them—resulting in their individual world’s ending. When LaValle writes that a divine figure declares  Adele to “Invite them back in,” he is proposing that those who have been ‘degraded,’ to use Kaplan’s language, can be given the space to redeem themselves by those who choose to invite them into those spaces (LaValle 364). Similar spaces to evolve, uncover, absolve, and reclaim aspects of one’s life/world have been presented in various novels throughout the course of this semester.

Redemption in Wild Seed stems from the impending death by suicide of Anyanwu as she prepares to leave everything she has known––even Doro. Brought to this realization, Doro knows that the only way to save himself from loneliness is to appeal to Anyanwu; to change himself into an image she would accept. In this sense, Doro wants Anyanwu to invite him back into her life: to stay with him for the rest of their immortal time on Earth, and to comfort each other’s loneliness if it may arise. Anyanwu—having originally been willing to let Doro back into her life, giving him a second chance after the cat-and-mouse game they have played for the last few decades—becomes hesitant when Doro kills Susan, one of the women he brought to live on Anyanwu’s plantation. The death of Susan brings Anyanwu to the revelation that Doro may never change. That he will always look at his people as nothing more than a source for his own power. Anyanwu had allowed Doro back into her life because she thought that he had finally understood that his need for breeding his people didn’t make him any better than the slavers. However, she was presented with the notion that Doro’s inert nature was to use his people until he no longer needed them and then to discard of them by jumping into their skin. Anyanwu is resigned to death because if she can’t change Doro, then what is the purpose of being alive. Once he realizes how important she is to him, he decides that he’ll change for her. That he will stop breeding his people, and killing just for the sake of killing. That he will work towards being a better person––that he will redeem himself––if it means that she will remain with him.

The idea of redemption is almost a cliche in  American Desert, but after further examination, it tells the story of a battle between Ted and his ego while he grapples with whether he will let his surrounding society, as well as his family, back into his life after his resuscitation. Ted is a failed academic in his eyes and has yet to accomplish anything notable, causing the college he worked for to deny him tenure. This severe blow to his ego contributed to his lackluster relationship at home with his wife and kids. This feeling of inferiority led him to cheat on his wife in search of validation, something he felt a relationship with a younger student could provide. Then, on his way to die by suicide, he is killed in an accident, being decapitated, only to have his wound be shoddily stitched up. Nevertheless, he reanimates during his funeral, sitting up in his coffin during his wake. In his experience of being alive, dead, and then alive again, Ted was able to find value in his family and find value in himself, despite his past failures and wrongdoings. He realized if he wanted to be happy and at peace, he needed to kill his ego, and dying was the jumpstart to that realization. In terms of the line “Invite them back in” from Big Machine, Ted had invited his family and society back into his life, this acceptance was the final test of whether he had killed his ego and truly advanced and redeemed himself.  Accepting life for its varying experiences, and realizing that other people are just as important to him, relieved him of the apocalypse he was undergoing. In this he was able to find grace in his family, which finally gave him the allowance to die.

In Lagoon, redemption for the corrupt, oil-dependent society comes with the introduction and integration of the alien lifeforms which are looking to enter the society in Lagos. The journey of the novel works to demonstrate the city inviting the aliens into their communities, both in a more abstract, emotional way, but also literally in their inhalation of the garden-egg smelling vapor. The latter example of the city’s shift eventually reveals the true subject that the society is allowing back in: the natural world, with true redemption for the inhabitants of Nigeria lying within this olive branch. In one, the aliens making the water more inhabitable for those who live within it, even at the detriment of human life, and two, cracking down on oil company corruption, then replacing that facet of the economy with advanced technology brought by the aliens, Lagos was then better able to link the natural world to the industrial, and makes a space where both can thrive and work together to create a more cohesive unit. 

Opportunities for redemption through invitation also present themselves in Pym by Mat Johnson, a self-proclaimed parody of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, that explores a similar story to Poe’s from the perspective of a Black professor who’s just lost his job. Presenting the novel as a parody to readers does two things: one, it offers a ‘redeemed’ perspective on Poe’s racist narrative—one that explores the connotations of perceived invitations at the end of the novel—and two, it allows readers to understand that opportunities of redemption can be given to those who might not deserve them. But for the sake of the person offering this opportunity, it might give them the chance to reclaim something that an offender has taken from them.

Lidabel™: At the beginning of the course , we encountered Layli Long Soldier’s poem “Obligations 2,” where she writes, “As we / embrace   resist / the future    the present   the past / we work   we struggle…to understand   to find   to unbraid   to accept…the grief   the grief   the grief   the grief.” In connection with our exploration of the other novels, especially Big Machine, Soldier’s ability to force their readers through ‘the grief’ in her poem is highly comparable to that ability of the writers we’ve encountered this semester—LaValle, Butler, Johnson, etc—to do the same for their characters. As each protagonist navigates through moments in their lives that produce differing levels of grief, in their lack of capacity to move past this, they are obligated to move through it, utilizing their apocalyptic experiences to reflect on their deservingness of redemption. Ultimately we, the protagonists and us as readers, are confronted with the concept that we are allowed to grant forgiveness and redemption to both others and ourselves. We must hone the self and social degradation that is produced before, during, and after times of apocalypse as opportunities to bestow repossession amongst ourselves and others.

Maddie™: This notion of our individual understanding and perceptions of the apocalypse determines the apocalyptic outcome. The bridge explosion, while horrific, can be viewed as a terrorist attack, which was not foreign knowledge to the characters in Big Machine, allowing them to band together and move forward. The result of the apocalyptic chaos caused by the explosion that was inflicted on the people on the bridge, caused unity, “couples, trios, and quartets of the people walked together on the streets. Holding each other up. Some of them were crying, others still shocked. But no one seemed abandoned” (LaValle 353).  Lack of familiarity in the face of the apocalypse is what caused the characters in American Desert to convert to chaos and violence rather than unification. Different types of the apocalypse are the bridges to encourage each individual’s apocalyptic outcome. Ricky Rice talks about the challenges in individual perceptions and basic human nature, “they were just human beings. No matter how many visions and dreams and visitations, they were still just folks at first. They didn’t know if they were right. They could only hope” (LaValle 366).

Madolley™: A pre apocalyptic event is a phase before the actual apocalypse, where individuals are preparing for what they perceive to be an end of their world or end of worlds. If one believes the apocalypse to be the birthing of the last angel then the entirety of Big Machine is a pre apocalyptic world that serves as the catalyst for not only Ricky and Adele but also for residents of Garland and anyone associated with the Washburn Library. Ricky is brought to the library by the Voice, taught how to search for odd occurrences/any presence of the Voice, and is then sent on a case-specific task. In Garland, Ricky is under the assumption that he’s there to help Adele deal with the Solomon Clay situation, however, it is revealed at the end of the story that the Dean only sent Ricky there because it was preordained by the Voice. That he couldn’t send his best scholars for fear of Ricky not making it out of the birthing of the last angel. Everything that happened in Garland: the explosions, the bombing, even the cult of Solomon Clay is a cover for the Dean’s ideology of enslaving this angel. Once Ricky and Adele are made aware of the plan, they are on the run. They know that it is their duty to tell everyone their story in order to stop the apocalypse from occurring, because if the Dean gets his way, who’s to say there won’t be more destruction of the world? With the introduction of the growing angel in Ricky, both his and Adele’s worlds are ending as they try to figure out where to go from there.

Kendall™: Within Big Machine, the machine of the Washburn Library operates explicitly under the pretense of their faith in The Voice. This release of control is innate to the structure of faith, and is what allows the apocalypse of this novel, as well as ones we have read previously in the course, to occur. At the end of the novel, when Ricky “invites” the Angles of the Marsh to control him and have faith in their actions, he allows them to assist him in shooting Solomon Clay and chooses to carry to term the last angel. These choices ultimately are what lead to the true apocalypse at the end of the novel, and in this way faith serves as the catalyst for the apocalyptic event, the birth of the last angel. This is also seen in novels like Lagoon, where when Ayodele dies and releases the mist, allowing for the final show of the invitation of the aliens and their society into Lagos, this then leads to the worldwide apocalypse in the body of the novel. This faith in the aliens and that they wish to better nature and society is what leads to the uncovering of the corrupt nature of not only Lagos and Nigeria, but allows for the same to be integrated in the world around them. Through these avenues the way that faith operates in the bodies of these novels help to further perpetuate the apocalypses of the characters in these novels.     

Adelia™: The Library serves hundreds of people, both in occupations, shelter, and purpose in life. It allows the addicts and lost individuals that are brought to the Library to discover a way to change themselves, giving them a new and more proactive life. The katechon is denoted by The Nomos of the Earth as “the restrainer [that] holds back the end of the world” (Kaplan 80). Through this definition and its application to Big Machine, the primary force that acts against the chaos within society is the Washburn Library with its persistence in hindering its opposers. Not only does the Library implement order within the outside world, it creates a sanctuary for those repudiated from humanity. Santana Kaplan describes the katechon, in modernity, as “civil society”, or rather, “the World”, where the understanding of the two lies within how civil society is the center of “Human values” and this sets in place the Biblical interpretation of the World in “modernity” (Kaplan 80). In this interpretation, both aspects possess a shared “anti-Black structure” (Kaplan 80).  Through civil society being the katechon–yet holding a basis of anti-Blackness–it serves as both the stopper and agitator for the apocalypse; the Washburn Library stands in as society within Big Machine and henceforth reinforces tranquility for themselves, yet creates the disruptions within society, as the apocalyptic instigators come from within. Furthermore, the Washburn Library creates an opportunity for redemption for those rejected by society. This notion of redemption creates an intangible abstract katechon flowing through the overall goals of the Library and within each of the Unlikely Scholars as they attempt to discover the whereabouts of the Voice in order to reach salvation/acceptance by said higher power. Through redemption comes the action of working towards bettering oneself within society, yet it still remains the society in which initially rejected the Scholars and might continuously do so due to its anti-Black nature. 

Kya : We can also identify the dismissal of the homeless man’s statement and his subsequent exile from the bus as the katechon of the novel. In a plea to the bus riders, the homeless man says, “We even worse than animals…We like monsters” (LaValle 13). Despite the truth of his statement, it goes ignored because they couldn’t be bothered by his outbursts, even if it meant leaving him out in the cold. Had Ricky and the machine invited the man back in, they could have spurred redemption and thus, the apocalypse earlier. Meanwhile, Solomon Clay goes on to say the exact sentiment later in the novel: “We’re worse than animals! We’re like monsters” (LaValle 282). Solomon’s use of proper grammar and his non-threatening appearance appealed to Ricky because they perceived the homeless man as unruly and improper—and thus was someone to be ignored, unworthy of their forgiveness. By the end of the novel, Ricky acknowledged the mistake of “sacrificing” the homeless man and he effectively began the library and the world’s journey to redemption–looking beyond their initial perception and judgment to begin inviting them back in. 

Nick™: The apocalypse for Ricky started when he lost his sister to the washerwomen, his apocalypse ended when he accepted what his life was and what he had experienced. This is similar to Ted, where his apocalypse was arguably his whole life; even before he had “died” the first time, his apocalypse ended when he had freed himself from what he had done, experienced and went through. Ted and Ricky both ended their apocalypse when they set their minds free and freed themself from the trauma that had controlled their lives. They also ended their apocalypse when they let go of their ego, Ted was tormented from the “what if’s” in his life and Ricky was tormented by his ego in terms of holding onto his past or future self-importance, understanding that accepting and letting go has purpose and value in achieving calmness of the mind. As well,  Doro had a huge impeding ego that caused the death of countless peoples and uprooting of many lives in a negative way.  His apocalypse was his ability to never die and this apocalypse was only able to end when he let go of his ego, which meant lending his life over in support of Anyanwu and stopping his destructive habits and release of his power hungry cravings. 

Marlee™: Big Machine attests to a series of apocalypses through Ricky Rice’s life, from his childhood through his adulthood, and suggests that there will be more apocalypses down the line. This interpretation draws from Santana Kaplan’s characteristics of apocalypses, and that “The paradigm is not merely a particular phenomenon, nor is it a universal, but is rather a ‘singular case that is isolated from its context only insofar as, by exhibiting its own singularity, it makes intelligible a new ensemble” (Kaplan 18; quote from Agamben’s Signature). The first singular case Ricky experiences that marks a major apocalypse in his life is when he is separated from his childhood with the Washerwomen during the shoot-out in the staircase, and reflecting on it later in life, he considers that maybe he’d also died on that day. With this realization, Ricky is able to begin to consider the other apocalypses of his life: when he finds part of his soul eaten away by spiritual cats in a basement in Cedar Rapids, when he becomes an Unlikely Scholar, and now, as he is pregnant with the last living Angel. This, however, will not be the last apocalypse in Ricky’s life, which he seems to acknowledge in the concluding chapter. There are only more apocalypses to come.

For Your Viewing Pleasure – Title Possibilities:

  1. The Man, The Myth, The Legend: Ricky Rice
  2. To Our Ancestors: Please Forgive Us for Forgetting We are Fish
    1. What Ricky Rice’s Search For Redemption Has Taught Us: We All Need to be Forgiven for Forgetting We Are Fish
  3. We’ve Forgotten We’re Fish but Ricky Rice Hasn’t: Returning to our Syngnathidaen Roots
    1. We’ve Forgotten We’re Fish but Ricky Rice Hasn’t: Becoming a Syngnathidaen Marsupial
  4. The Last Angel on Earth: Surviving Doomsday through Male Pregnancy 
  5. Ricky Rice,  Syngnathidae Extraordinaire
  6. Seahorses are Not Marsupials but Ricky Rice Is and Yet Both Are Pregnant
  7. Marsupials for the Divine
  8. Apocalypse and Redemption: A Murder of the Ego
  9. A Hivemind’s Perception of the End
  10. Chick-fil-a’s apocalyptic end
  11. The straightforward path of the Apocalypse 
  12. Apocalypse: The New Plan B One-Step
  13. Redemption in Light of the Apocalypse 
  14. Seeking Redemption: Through Title Generation, We’ve Created our Own Apocalypse
  15. End of it all: the apocalypse, Ricky, and this class
  16. Redemption despite Destruction
  17. Heroin and Decapitation: The Apocalypse is the Cure
  18. Cults, Heroin, Redemption, & Pregnancy: A Ricky Rice Story
  19. Ricky Rice: a realization that pregnancy is actually, indeed, hard (and not giving)
  20. Immortality, Decapitation, Heroin, & Aliens: Markers of the Apocalypse

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