Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. This is one of those books that starts out revealing nothing, forcing readers to slowly piece together what is happening through the gradual accumulation of clues. Even the main character's backstory is not revealed until near the end. Which can be a fun reading experience, but makes it extremely difficult to write about the book.
Here's what I can say without spoilers: Ricky Rice, small-time criminal and occasional heroin addict, works as a janitor for a bus station in upstate New York. One day he gets a letter in a handwriting he doesn't recognize, with a one-way ticket to Vermont and the message, You made promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it. Considering that he made that promise to a dead man and has never told anyone else about it, Ricky is understandably mystified.
The plot that follows involves cults, faith vs doubt, paranormal activity, oracles, terrorist activity, the downtrodden of modern America, the desire to belong, babies, creatures who might be monsters or might be angels, lots of elaborate descriptions of clothing, and troubled family relationships. I would not describe it as a horror novel, though I'd seen other people putting it in that category (which is why I included it in my reading this month). It's literary fiction with a slight tinge of the mystical.
The writing – in Ricky's first-person voice, aware that he's speaking to an audience – is very appealing, funny and eloquent and ironic. I do think Lavalle has interesting things to say about the anger of the oppressed, and how to deal with those who have been left out of the American Dream. Here's a passage that particularly struck me:
People like us, poor folks I mean, we're wise in some ways but in others we act like children. We can be a pretty docile bunch. I know you're not supposed to say that, but for proof just go to any hospital emergency room in a broke neighborhood, I'm talking anywhere. We slump and slouch for hours as we wait to be seen by a nurse practitioner, and a trained doctor is as rare as health benefits at our jobs. It might take five or six hours just to get some antibiotics, and the only way we're going to get seen any faster is if we've been filled with bullets. Even then it's going to take an hour.
We sit through treatment like that in hospitals and banks, at supermarkets and check cashing stores. No matter where you go, the poor have the capacity to endure. Some people even compliment us on it, as if endurance is all we can achieve.
The picture of the poor is usually of one wild, chaotic lot. Loud, combative, quick to complain, but that isn't so, not in my experience. Just dip into that emergency room and watch every tired face; we've been there for half a day and have yet to receive treatment. Most will only heave and sigh, that's the extent of our rebellion. The poor are poor and we expect to stay that way. We don't like it, but what can you do? That's our attitude. The poor aren't defeated, we're domesticated.
But that's really all the book has going for it. Such ideas are little nuggets of gold, scattered throughout a lot of dirt. Even the very structure of the book is terribly warped. The opening and middle sections are extremely, extremely slow-burn, almost more a depiction of a specific life than an action plot. That would be fine on its own, but the final section then explodes in twists and murders and shocking revelations and we-have-to-save-the-world type dramatics, and it just doesn't quite work. There's not enough payoff, or build-up, or something, and nothing feels balanced. Themes come and go, making it difficult to know what the point of anything is, or who to root for. There is something of good here, but it's almost lost in a book that needed several more rounds of reworking.
Oh, well. I was disappointed by this book, but I still like Lavalle enough as an author to seek out more.
The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike. Translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Another horror read for October, possibly my favorite so far – or at least, while the others have had many and varied positive qualities of their own, Graveyard Apartment has by far been the scariest.
A small family (Misao, the mother; Teppei, the father; and Tamao, their five year old daughter) in Tokyo have found what seems to be the perfect apartment: cheap, large, sunny, easy commute, good school nearby, etc. Of course there's always a catch, and in this case it happens to be that the apartment building is surrounded on three sides by a graveyard, crematorium, and funeral temple. Nonetheless they move in, and creepy things slowly begin to happen, as in any good ghost story. These new problems are exacerbated by the tensions already simmering within the family: their strained relationship with Teppei's brother and his wife, and the fact that Misao and Teppei's relationship began as an affair which drove Teppei's first wife to suicide, whose ghost (metaphorically this time!) still haunts them.
The writing is a bit stilted (though I have no idea whether to blame the author or the translator), but nonetheless it manages to do an excellent job of conveying creepy tingles. There were definitely several scenes that I regretted reading on my own late at night. Unfortunately I felt the scariest parts were in the middle of the book; the ending didn't manage an equal impact. Possibly this was because the author shifts focus from the graveyard to an "underground road" (a forgotten tunnel near the apartment left behind by a long-ago construction project), which she seemed to find an inherently terrifying idea, but which left me cold. Graveyards are way scarier than empty tunnels!
Despite that, the book had an excellent sense of atmosphere and some truly scary scenes. I recommend it.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
What are you currently reading?
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Another horror novel! This one is about a murder in 1880s rural Scotland.
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