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Big Machine: A Novel Paperback – March 9, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 72 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. LaValle has garnered critical acclaim for his previous works (a collection, Slapboxing with Jesus, and novel, The Ecstatic), and his second novel is sure to up his critical standing while furthering comparisons to Haruki Murakami, John Kennedy Toole and Edgar Allan Poe. Gritty, mostly honest-hearted ex-heroin addict protagonist Ricky Rice takes a chance on an anonymous note delivered to him at the cruddy upstate New York bus depot where he works as a porter. Quickly, Ricky finds himself among the Unlikely Scholars, a secret society of ex-addicts and petty criminals, all black like him, living in remote Vermont and sifting through stacks of articles in a library devoted to investigating the supernatural; the existence of a god; and the legacy of Judah Washburn, an escaped slave who claimed to have had contact with a higher being that the Unlikely Scholars now call the Voice. Ricky's intoxicating voice—robust, organic, wily—is perfect for narrating LaValle's high-stakes mashup of thrilling paranormal and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, as the fateful porter—something of a modern Odysseus rallied by a team of spiritual X-men—wanders through America's messianic hoo-hah. (Aug.)
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Review

“Fractures all of our notions of how well-made fiction ought to behave. . .idea-hungry and haywire, too alive and abrasive to be missed.  The multicultural novel has come of age — smashingly.” — Kirkus (starred)

“LaValle is as much wry fabulist as he is dogged allegorist, and his flights of grim fancy are tethered by acute observations. He can be awfully funny, too. [His]devilish fable renders the visible world–of science, social hierarchies, and New York Times headlines–a load of cultish hooey.”
--Bookforum

“Beautiful.” — Vanity Fair


“If Hieronymus Bosch and Lenny Bruce got knocked up by a woman with a large and compassionate heart, they might have brought forth Big Machine. But it is Victor LaValle's peculiar, poetic, rough and funny voice that brings it to us, alive and kicking and irresistible.”—Amy Bloom, author of the New York Times bestseller Away

Big Machine is like nothing I’ve ever read, incredibly human and alien at the same time. LaValle writes like Gabriel Garcia Marquez mixed with Edgar Allen Poe, but this is even more than that. He’s written the first great book of the next America.”—Mos Def

“If the literary Gods mixed together Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison, and threw in several fistfuls of 21st century attitude, the result would be Victor LaValle.  Big Machine is a wonderful, original, and crazy novel.” —Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and About Grace


“Victor LaValle is one of the finest writers around—puzzling but never abstruse, compassionate but never pitying. With The Ecstatic, he produced one of my favorite novels of the decade, and now, with Big Machine, he has produced another: a pristine window into a flawed human soul, but also a daring fantasy through which America and all its troubles come sliding gradually into focus.” —Kevin Brockmeier, author of A Brief History of the Dead

“Sure to up his critical standing while furthering comparisons to Haruki Murakami, John Kennedy Toole and Edgar Allan Poe. Ricky’s intoxicating voice—robust, organic, wily—is perfect for narrating LaValle’s high-stakes mashup of thrilling paranormal and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as the fateful porter—something of a modern Odysseus rallied by a team of ‘spiritual X-men’—wanders through America’s ‘messianic hoo-hah.’”—Publishers Weekly, starred


From the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (March 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385527993
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385527996
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #626,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Plenty of folks have provided plot summaries, so I'll forgo boring you with another one.

I found the writing in this book just brilliant. A real pleasure. Funny, insightful... A genuine joy to read.

On the other hand, the plot *does* descend into the supernatural and (as others have said) the just plain "weird" -- Too weird for me to really love the work.

The book is very richly detailed and well crafted. But throughout the book, I kept asking myself "What's he GETTING AT here? This character exposition is interesting, the writing is fun, the dialog is terrific... But what do ALL these various and interesting details MEAN in the larger scheme of things?" For example, what are we to take away from Adele's pre-Washburn torment? How does all the rich description of the washerwomen cult contribute to the overall theme of this book? Are we supposed to draw some sort of parallel between the lights in the hallway of the By The Bay hotel being smashed, and the lights in the stairwell during Ricky's last night with the washerwomen?

I couldn't help but wonder about these things.

And when things got supernatural I just wanted to know how everything ended. In fact, I didn't think the supernatural parts towards the end were the best crafted parts of the book -- I certainly felt there were some pretty weak plot turns (from the girl in the folklore society, to the guys who just happened to be in the lobby of By The Bay).

So... that's a conflicted review. I'm definitely looking forward to reading LaValle's next work.
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Format: Hardcover
I've been an editor for 20 years, and I can count on one hand the number of writers whose work holds a candle to Victor LaValle. The Big Machine is the first book I've read by LaValle, but it won't be the last. He is a genius, plain and simple.
All I will say about The Big Machine is that it's a very weird plot, and if you don't like "supernatural" ideas in your fiction, then you probably won't like this book. But if you can handle some truly weird and surprising story elements, then you're in for a treat.
Throughout a somewhat convoluted novel, LaValle manages to maintain stronger characterization and motivational consistency than I've seen in a very long time. His dialogue is spot-on, and subtly opens windows into his characters minds and backgrounds. As a reader, I totally believe in his characters, and I was moved and humbled by their agonizing struggles and transformations. For those reasons alone LaValle deserves five stars. But the (admittedly weird) story also is crafted in such an elegant and surprising way that it's worthy of more stars. I wish I could give him six or seven.
Heartily recommended ... with the caveat that readers should be prepared for weirdness.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I must preface this review by saying I'm not a science fiction reader- while appreciate any well-written book, the genre as a whole just isn't for me. Exception: Big Machine. Victor LaValle's novel describes what happens when Ricky Rice decides to follow the directions on an anonymous note telling him to take a bus to Vermont. He becomes an "Unlikely Scholar" at a mysterious library, which is just the beginning of emotionally intense, unbelievable adventure.

Crazy Good (and at Times Just Plain Crazy)
- The best way I can describe LaValle's writing style is Urban Intellectual- told from the perspective of his main character, who has been around the block a few time (if you know what I'm sayin'), the reader understands that this man may not be book-smart, but is definitely life and street smart (with a few exceptions). I didn't feel as if I was reading LaValle write from Rice's perspective, I felt as if I was truly reading Rice's memoir.
- Rice's back story is just as interesting as what's going on in the present (a cult, heroin, flesh eating cats), which some author's fail to do. Another character's, Adele's, who becomes just as important, background is also divulged and is just as intriguing. LaValle deliberately creates flat characters and well-rounded ones, leaving no doubt who's important.
- One of the most important concepts of the book, redemption, really makes the reader turn inward, forcing them to examine their own values and willingness to forgive (others and themselves).
- This isn't a scifi book that's beating you over the head with aliens or time travel.
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Format: Hardcover
Ricky Rice, the protagonist in Victor LaValle's second novel, begins telling us his story in Utica, NY, which he has reached by way of even more podunk towns like Kingston, Elmira, and Troy. It's amazing to witness Ricky's transformation from a beaten-down bus-station janitor to a lead investigator on supernatural incidents for a covert operation.

The insight into cultish responses to supernatural phenomena, coupled with fast, modern writing rings of Don DeLillo (Mao II: A Novel) or even Chuck Palahniuk (Survivor: A Novel). That the author is a black novelist writing of a black everyman protagonist, in a very tour-de-force way, puts me in the mind of Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). This novel is a fiercely sweeping and original take on contemporary America as it wrestles with its demons, be they literal or metaphorical.
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