We live in a fractured, rapidly evolving culture, one in which reality often seems lifted from a Vonnegut novel. Surreal has become real.
Few writers deal with this notion better than Chris Bachelder. His first novel, 2001’s Bear v. Shark, trained its lacerating satirical eye on America’s media-saturated, competition-crazed culture by way of a hilariously rendered premise: Who would win a fight between a bear and a shark?
A road novel delivered via a variety of meta-techniques in short chapters — faux interviews with himself, quizzes, lists, indexes, letters, etc. — Bear v. Shark is so funny that one almost forgets its caustic portrait of a culture lost in a sea of mind-numbing esoterica: awareness by way of “reality” TV.
Bachelder’s latest comic wonder of a novel, U.S.!, offers an even more surreal proposition: It exhumes Upton Sinclair — literally.
Sinclair — a painfully prolific muckraking writer who died in 1968 and whose didactic books routinely attacked the rich and powerful — is brought back to life multiple times (he keeps getting assassinated) by leftists because, as one character says, “things aren’t fair.”
To explain the plot further would be futile: Bachelder’s fractured, formally playful narratives defy compact blurbbage. And while clearly concerned with the demise of the American Left, U.S.! is no preachy polemic: everyone is fair game.
Bachelder recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for CityBeat.
CityBeat: Let’s start with the obvious: Why write a novel about Upton Sinclair?
Chris Bachelder: I wanted to write a political novel that was also a novel about political novels. The real-life figure of Upton Sinclair began for me simply as a vehicle, a way to explore some topics that were interesting and perplexing to me. I knew very little biographical information about Sinclair when I started the book.
What originally caught my eye was a newspaper article about Sinclair's gubernatorial candidacy in California in 1934 — the direct collision of art and politics. As I worked, I began researching by reading Sinclair's fiction and nonfiction, his biographies and autobiographies. Then I began to learn that he was a very interesting and complicated figure. This information helped me shape a more complicated character in the novel — I ultimately aspired to a character who was simultaneously admirable and exasperating — but still I never thought of this as a work of any biographical merit or thoroughness. … I just wanted to explore a problem that was very real and difficult for me — i.e. how to engage the world artistically — and Sinclair was the perfect vehicle or metaphor for my inquiry.
CB: You once said, “American art has become so middle class in its concerns.” What did you mean by that?
Bachelder: That sounds pretty obnoxious. I suppose I just meant there are so many novels about suburbia and adultery and malaise. To paraphrase Doctorow, there are riots in the street and we've closed the curtains and dramatized the kitchen and the bedroom. But I know this sounds like some kind of manifesto — the truth is that many of these domestic novels are beautifully done and, of course, fiction can and should be about a huge range of human issues.
CB: Why are there so few political novels now? It seems like a large, overarching novel like DeLillo's Underworld is very rare these days?
Bachelder: That’s a complicated question. Writers today are squeamish, and rightfully so, about political writing for a variety of reasons. One, we have plenty of models of poor political writing in America — Sinclair is an example — tendentious, didactic, uncomplicated novels written to prove a point, at the expense of complexity and depth. Two, to engage with the world you have to presume to know the world, and knowing the world seems increasingly difficult or impossible, so we have many books that are about our inability to know. Three, political discourse and political issues change so rapidly and radically that a novelist really takes a risk addressing politics specifically in a book. The book very well could feel dated before it's even done. Political novels, like other novels, must contain questions and complexity, rather than simply rage or answers, or they seem dead on the page.
CB: Talk a bit about your stylistic approach: short chapters that vary wildly in form and presentation. Is this an attempt to convey our fractured cultural existence and the various media we use to communicate? Or is more organic?
Bachelder: Certainly my formal strategies have to do with the fragmentation of contemporary American existence. The long, carefully plotted, seamless novel is often a joy to read, but it doesn't really capture our cultural moment very well. So the novelist bends the form to incorporate other forms of media and discourse.
But with U.S.! I was also trying to do something else. It's a common statement that form and meaning are connected, but Mark Edmundson writes that form and feeling are also connected — that form is the primary way that writers infuse their work with emotion. So in U.S.! I was trying to create a certain feeling.
CB: Speaking of culture, you seem to have this real need to comment on how we live today. Why are you so interested in the cultural critique?
Bachelder: This doesn't feel like a choice. It's just the kind of writer I am, or have been. I have been drawn to satire and large canvas criticism. I have a sense of dread and disappointment about the country and the world, and I want to deal with that in my writing. But there are plenty of writers who share that dread who aren't interested in writing about it — so they write beautifully about something else. I wouldn't go so far as to say artists have a political obligation. Much of this is personal, idiosyncratic.
CB: As a satirist, are you worried that it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with something that isn’t already happening in our world?
Bachelder: Very worried. Satire is, I think, increasingly untenable. I worry that the world is far more absurd than anything I could make up. I worry that satire is not just a very complicated form of writing. I worry that satire often seems smug and righteous. And certainly I worry about the fact that satire just doesn't get anything done. I've thought about this a great deal, and I'm definitely interested in moving away from satire, or perhaps trying to complicate it. I would be happy to write something that nobody would call a satire.
CB: Reality and its rapidly unmanageable state is a big theme in your books. That said, it seems the novel is one of the last remaining unfiltered forms of communication: one person’s vision presented in a long, sustained form. What is the future of the novel? What will be the role of the novelist be in the future?
The role of the novelist is and will be what it always has been: To
stay awake, to represent consciousness, to explore the lovely and
horrible human condition, to foster empathy and connection. Some
novelists will act, as Vonnegut suggested, as canaries in the
coalmine. They will try to sound the alarms. Other novelists will try
to explore and deepen mysteries. And the novelist always has new
material and new forms because the novel is a great borrower and
stealer. It doesn't have a form of its own — it just appropriates
other forms, and the culture is always throwing up new forms of
discourse. So the novel as a form is healthy. Culturally, however,
the novel is not important and it's getting less important every day.
There are so many books, so few readers. It's not important or
influential, but great novels will no doubt continue to be written.