Art History in “Big Machine” by Victor LaValle

I once again read a book by Victor LaValle.  The previous two titles I have read by him ranged from excellent to alright. The second link contains my review of his book, The Devil in Silver.  So when I saw his novel Big Machine available in my library app, I decided to give it a chance.

A drifting soul named Ricky joins a nonprofit organization in Vermont known as the Unlikely Scholars.  During his residency, he collects accounts detailing the unexplained for the Scholar’s archives called the Washburn Library.  According to the characters, the Library presents this ambiance of authority with its interior imitating government buildings and art museums.  When Ricky visits California, the book regards the state’s buildings of differing styles and eras of past decades. The text mentions these structures while Ricky and his partner dress up in outfits would have probably matched well with the buildings but draw stares from people dressed in more contemporary fashions.

The Washburn Library itself has art.  The building has two (possible reproductions) of Caravaggio’s paintings of Saint Jerome and David holding up Goliath’s head.

Caravaggio / Public domain
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Looking at Caravaggio’s Baroque production of David gripping Goliath’s head, Ricky describes himself feeling both awe and terror at the artwork.

Because Caravaggio devoted various paintings to David and Saint Jerome, LaValle’s detailed descriptions of both portraits acted as a valuable guide for me to include the right artworks for this review.  The book furthermore informs the reader that these Baroque era artworks exemplified the different types of people who worked for the organization.  Jerome represented the researchers working in the Library’s archives, while David symbolized the detectives who worked as agents for the Scholars.  In my opinion, LaValle wanted to make sure readers got the right interpretation from his inclusion of these two Caravaggios.

As Ricky travels with other investigators, he encounters people forming a new religious reformation that causes catastrophic results.  This plotline becomes part of the book’s point of how people in history have altered Biblical text for their agenda.  To highlight this point, LaValle cites Saint Jerome’s misinterpretation of a word that would later influence artists to represent Moses with two prominent head protrusions.  However, my investigation into this section of art history revealed a debate over whether this artistic depiction was accidental.  Furthermore, the book devotes multiple chapters of Big Machine to Ricky’s childhood in a Christian sect led by the three women known as the Washerwomen.  According to Ricky, the Washerwomen revised the Bible with more contemporary language and scenarios.  Not a new thing in art, for I have seen paintings such as Jan Van Eyck’s The Annunciation depicting the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in a building unlikely to have existed during Mary’s lifetime.

All in all, I enjoyed Big Machine, and I recommend checking out this book.  I found the characters and story fascinating and legitimately surprising.

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