by Justin Taylor
“The book died because that's what good books do without huge accidents of publicity.”-Padgett Powell
In October 2004, I picked up the pre-election issue of The Believer. In that issue, in an article entitled “A Soldier Upon a Hard Campaign,” Chris Bachelder waxed philosophical on political and satiric writing, on the admirable zeal and regrettable prose of Upton Sinclair, and on the prescience of E. L. Doctorow. He also offered some unflinching self-critique of Bear V Shark, his first novel.
The book follows the Normans, archetypal American family extraordinaire, on a road trip to the sovereign nation of Las Vegas to witness Bear V Shark II, a bigger-than-1000-superbowls sort of event. The first time around the shark won, but rather than providing a conclusive answer to the age-old question (given a level playing field, who would win in a fight . . . ), bear-backers have vowed revenge and once again it will all go down at The Darwin Dome. The Normans won free tickets when their son, Curtis, won an essay contest with an entry titled "Bear V Shark: A Reason to Live." Of this novel, Bachelder wrote “a satire first published late in 2001, [it] has faded quietly out of print after a pretty modest circulation run and disappointing sales here in the USA.” Toward the article’s end he wrote that the book seemed to him now “in fact, as disposable and ephemeral as the popular culture it derides.”
Of course, at this point it had been nearly two years since I’d even held the book, but it had never occurred to me that the novel might have been anything less than an unqualified success. Chris Bachelder had been an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Florida while I was an undergraduate there. Though I didn't know him personally, the combination of school pride and proximity had been enough to multiply the already considerable pleasure of reading what I’d taken to be an aggressively paced, wildly original satire. But putting the hometown hero thing aside, the book’s vitriol had come as a welcome relief from the endless stream of hyper-patriotic pap that had taken over the airwaves and bookstore-shelves beginning September 12, 2001. I had loved BvS and pushed it on everyone I knew. In fact, my copy was so well-loved that I never got it back. It lives on an anarchist compound in Waldo, Florida, now, the yellow bear-and-shark-emblazoned spine doubtless a standout amidst more volumes of Bakunin and Marx than are advisable for a household.
In a nutshell: I remembered reading a much better novel than its author was describing having written.
If you Google “Bachelder” this is what you get: (1) The law offices of J. E. Bachelder, (2) the Wee Otter Restaurant at Maine’s historic Bachelder Inn (since 1808!), (3) a professor of the trumpet in Vermont, (4) Nahum J. Bachelder’s Guide to Likenesses of New Hampshire Officials, (5) a Bookslut interview with Chris Bachelder from January 2004, (6) Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography, (7) etc.
Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography purports to be a guidebook. Organized by “lesson,” it includes illustrations, important notes in bold-face, useful quotes and tips in the wide left margin, and the occasional recap or pop quiz. The genial but removed narrator is constantly indicating to “you” what the next step is and how things should look, as if you were assembling a workbench. “Drive along the dark interstate and feel almost immediately exhausted,” you are instructed in Lesson 1 (“Getting Started: How to Drive to a Large Market that is not New York”). “It is crucial that you imagine your life as a movie.”
As the lessons progress, “you” are dragged through the daily grind of virtual tour photography (a neo-archaic process involving turning in a circle to take overlapping digital pictures that are saved on floppy disks and then sent to a group of Russians in California who “sew” the images into 360-degree “virtual tours” of apartments and building grounds), “you” fall back into old habits with an estranged ex-girlfriend but keep your feelings guarded and stay ambivalent about commitment, “you” make friends with the guy across the hall, “you” wonder (idly) about the brutality of the world and watch (numbly) as the neighborhood around you decays further still.
This book is a structural marvel. In less skilled hands the how-to format would have soon become stale, forcing either an evasive tonal shift or else driving the reader to bored tears. Bachelder, however, manages to keep the jokes fresh and the turns sharp, meanwhile laying groundwork for the ultimate subversive move. High and low cultural references mingle and sometimes crossbreed as the Houston summer gets hotter, the apartment complex names start to swim together, the Russians keep calling, and the story of “you” and “the Estranged Girlfriend” develops in the most unexpected direction—into a tale of flawed, genuine humanity and honest-to-God pathos.
“We liked it a ton,” McSweeney’s managing editor Eli Horowitz told me, “but in a way it was too directly up our alley. So we didn't know what to do. But Chris seemed game for anything, and I remembered reading in the late 90s that e-books were the wave of the future, and here we were, in the future, and so it seemed like a good fit.” John Warner, the McSweeney’s web editor, estimated that the file has been downloaded 75,000 times, though he qualified that guess by saying “that could be on the low side. [It] far exceeded any expectations I might have had.”
Though it’s shorter than BvS, Bachelder spent a lot longer on Virtual Tour. “I was committed to the material and just couldn't let it go,” Bachelder told me. “I wrote it as a first person novel, then started over and wrote it in third person, then started over and wrote it in second person.” After the decision to go e-book, the format was changed yet again (from an “Employee” adding his own “appendices” to an employee manual to the “guide”/“lessons” form it now assumes), and Horowitz brought in a “designer, editor, picture-finder, caption-writer, and computer-whiz.” Bachelder, Horowitz, and the team spent about six months working out the format and look of Virtual Tour. It was published on the McSweeney’s website in November 2004 as a free Adobe PDF file.
I wondered whether there was a political dimension to that decision, but Bachelder said it wasn’t intended as a statement. “When we were working on it, there was this great feeling of cooperation and collaboration and good will, and my feeling was that I wanted to extend this good will outward to readers. I thought that even charging a couple dollars would just look grubby and ugly…Also, at this point, I was just so happy that this book was going to be made available in some form.”
YOU WERE WRONG TO DOUBT YOURSELF
“[W]e are actually living in an age when satire is increasingly untenable,” Bachelder wrote in The Believer, “because satire relies on clear distinctions between real and absurd, and between core and surface, and those are not distinctions we can easily make anymore.” Essentially, he is updating the sentiment expressed by Philip Roth in 1960, that the culture’s absurdity was outstripping the writer’s ability to invent (Bachelder himself quotes Roth in full in the article). Of course, the fact that Bachelder got a book like BvS published forty-one years after Roth’s proclamation should signal to him that perhaps both he and Roth are coming off unnecessarily defeatist, if still pithily quotable.
“The proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose;” said Upton Sinclair, “he thinks no more of ‘art for art’s sake’ than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin . . . ” Wrote Bachelder apropos Sinclair’s statement: “I admit I’m stirred by this kind of overblown, radical rhetoric, but I know it’s misleading…Beauty without Conviction is a beer commercial; Conviction without Beauty is a pamphlet.” This last is perhaps the most concise articulation of Bachelder’s philosophy, especially to the extent that a well-executed joke can be considered Beautiful in some analogous way to that in which Marilynne Robinson’s luminous clarity or Dennis Cooper’s austere brutality can be considered Beautiful. Yet it’s not the little beauties in Bear V Shark—outlandish commercials for inane products masquerading as chapters or the author writing himself in as a color commentator on a live news feed in Part 2—that make it a work of residual interest and, yes, redeeming social value. It is, as with Virtual Tour, the utterly unexpected and disarming infusion of humanity (read here as “Conviction”) into the whirlwind of comedy, fantasy, and bile. In a culture where earnestness is derided and satire a form largely bereft of any goal beyond self-reference and/or -preservation, the most original and irreverent thing you can do is to actually care about something.
Bachelder knows that satire isn’t dead or impossible, only in need of some Conviction to give it shape, or else he wouldn’t bother trying. His point, then, seems to be about just how much harder satire becomes, as hyperculture eclipses more and more of the sane world that satirists such as himself take (and provide) such pleasure in undermining.
But this is the thing: concerning his own first novel (which I've just re-read), Chris Bachelder is wrong. And I'm not alone in this assessment. “It’s humor that I admire,” Padgett Powell told me, adding “I would not mind having written Bear V Shark.” I wouldn’t mind having written it either, for whatever that’s worth, but coming from the author of Edisto and Aliens of Affection (among others) that’s really saying something. Indeed, Powell—who teaches at University of Florida—was instrumental in getting Bear v Shark published while Bachelder was still an M.F.A. candidate. “I suggested an agent,” Padgett said, “and the book was sold two weeks later.”
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELVES, AND EACH OTHER (OR, THE FINAL THOUGHT)
It’s too early to guess whether BvS will or won’t turn out to be “a foundational work in the construction of an American poetics of engagement,” as Bachelder put it, or “embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life,” as he quoted Milton as putting it. But it’s funny and it’s revealing and it’s as sharp as it was four years ago, neither Freedom Fries nor the rise of reality TV withstanding. Rather than accept Bachelder’s own assessment of his first novel, I’m more inclined to go with the theory posited by Kevin Leahy in his introduction to the Bookslut interview: that BvS “hit the market at a time when America wasn’t in the mood for self-critical reflection and metafictional fun and games.” That’s undoubtedly true. What’s more, if the rest of the country needed more time to recover from 9/11 than a bunch of North Florida radicals, I suppose that’s fair enough as well. But at this point, anybody who stands by the ridiculous 9/12 declaration of irony’s death is a poseur; one with an agenda to be sure. There should be more books like this.
Oh sure, there are some flaws in BvS. Some are probably symptomatic of it being a first novel, and others are doubtless specific to the story, but since I’m not here today as a reviewer I don’t have to point them out or dwell on them. I’m here strictly in my role as advocate. In general, I advocate the politics of giving a damn, and anyone who is willing to envision the art-child of a beer commercial and a socialist broadside. In specific, I advocate the re-publication of Bear V Shark. Finally, I suggest readers everywhere keep their eyes peeled for his new novel U.S.!, being published by Bloomsbury in February 2006. The story follows Upton Sinclair as he is repeatedly (and quite literally) resurrected from the grave, only to be repeatedly assassinated for his trouble. I haven’t seen a preview copy, but suffice to say that hopes are running high.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005