Can't You Like Victor LaValle for Himself?
In the opening of Big Machine, Ricky Rice is a bus station janitor ("Don't look for dignity in public bathrooms," the first sentence warns the reader) and a former junkie who is always about one phone call away from making a spectacular plunge off the wagon. The astounding thing about Victor LaValle's talent is that he renders the grubby world of the bus station into something the reader wants to linger in for another 400 pages, much like the addictive, claustrophobic worldview of the morbidly obese narrator of LaValle's audacious first novel, The Ecstatic. But by the third chapter, Rice is on a mysterious journey to join a secret organization that examines paranormal activity, and we've learned that he is the sole survivor of a strange suicide cult. The revelations continue to unfold in Big Machine, one after the other, until the very last page.
Based on this book's blurbs, the first compulsion on reading a novel by Victor LaValle is to compare him to other writers. On the dust jacket of Big Machine, Anthony Doerr compares LaValle to Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison; Mos Def (who loved The Ecstatic so much that he created a whole concept album based on it) calls him "Gabriel García Márquez mixed with Edgar Allan Poe." I'm inclined to suggest that Big Machine's genre plot and lush language evoke Jonathan Lethem's early work or Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, and there hasn't been a writer so adept at describing a haunting of a human being in such a gothic style since Shirley Jackson died.
It's a common thing when confronted by something new to try to explain it in terms of the familiar. One could even make the case, with Big Machine's team of paranormal investigators led by a shadowy genius in a mansion, that LaValle is riffing on the X-Men. But it's really his skill at storytelling—and in many ways, it's old-fashioned, unironic storytelling—that makes him such a remarkable new talent. He's spinning a yarn, and you want to stick with it to see what happens; there's nothing complicated about it.