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Book review: <i>Bear v. Shark</i> by Chris Bachelder

If this was an art installation, it would be a functioning concept-SUV made out of tofu.


Loewy-esque cod-fifties graphics surround an equally limp photograph of somebody’s kitchen bench with a bear mask and a rubber shark on it. If it wasn’t orange I might not have picked it up and that would have been a tearful thing for the omnipresent, invisible time-travelling version of myself doomed to forever observe yet powerless to act on its supernaturally-gleaned future knowledge. As it were.

The plot

In the near future, America is obsessed to the point of psychotic mania with an annual entertainment event. Imagine! Said event is a digital, stadium-sized contest based around the following question: “Who would win in a fight between a bear and a shark, assuming there was enough water for the shark to swim about and breathe, yet the water was shallow enough for the bear to stand up and move relatively easily?”

Young Curtis Norman has won a ticket to the rematch—Bear v. Shark II—held in Las Vegas, which has seceded from the United States. The Norman family (Curtis, Mike, and Mr. & Mrs. Norman) climb into the SUV and head to the desert, ready to witness the most exciting spectacle of their lives until the next one.

The good

I love this freakin’ book. If you can imagine Heller and Vonnegut collaborating on a new MTV reality show then your brain will explode, so don’t do that. But Bachelder is patently a fan of Vonnegut (the book opens with a quote), and evinces a single-minded dedication to The Big Joke school of satire that I haven’t seen since outside Catch-22. It’s hilarious, because it’s black, because it’s so easy to imagine that it borders on inevitable, but also because it’s written by a very smart author being very stupid indeed, and when isn’t that funny?

The Bear v. Shark premise, on the surface, seems a lot like the eponymous military regulation of Heller’s famous work, but, in fact, is half a century different, and Bachelder’s grip on the zeitgeist is almost pornographically satisfying. As in Vonnegut or Phillip K Dick’s work, the near-future setting is not a cheat; it is an essential way of “catapulting the propaganda”, as George W had it. The dissonance created by this small temporal gap has a powerful satirical effect in the right hands, and Bachelder’s are certainly those. The tone is perfect. Post-modern (at least by my understanding) in the right places, at the right moments, and with the right amount of restraint—Bachelder appears, as himself, for one chapter, where he does guest commentary and proves himself unable to second guess his own characters. He breaks the fourth wall and talks to the reader—once. He has a Trout-esque “last sane man in the world” cypher called the Last Folksinger—who appears three times in the whole novel, affecting nothing. He emails shark and bear experts to get their opinions, then tells us what they say.

It’s really funny. The entire Bear v. Shark premise is an example of what Neil Postman, another author quoted within, calls “pseudo context”. It’s an utterly meaningless point of conflict, born from nowhere, meaning nothing, and so it gets continually framed as a “Zen-like question, possibly of Eastern origin”, by TV idiots... which, in itself is, of course, a meaningless unknown—at one point they freely admit that the question was invented and trademarked eight years ago by some executive, but the thing is, IT DOESN’T MATTER. The fact that there are four other false possibilities as to the origin of the question provides a controversy which replaces the question of where the question came from, thereby functioning as a “context” for the main question and allowing tens of millions of people to stop worrying about why this is the most important thing in their life and get on with deciding who would win in a fight between a bear and a shark.

“Ignorance is easily correctable. But where shall we be if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
-Neil Postman

George W? Any ideas?

Another immaculately furnished theme of Bear v. Shark is the modern abuse of what Douglas Adams calls “one-to-many” communication. Go back just a century or so, and you find a world where, barring a newspaper or two, almost all the information an average (i.e. non-urban) human received related to them directly. An accident in the next village? You might be able to help. Someone died? You probably knew them. You were probably related to them. That sort of thing. In a hundred years you have a world where tidal waves of information, generated by a tiny number of sources, wash over most humans every day. Thus people cry at movies, vote for a TV show called Big Brother starring friends they’ve never met (that was the sound of irony failing, in case you wondered) and can’t relate to their own families. The world impacts upon them, but they have no impact on the world. (Which is half the reason teenagers graffiti their initials on things, I think, the other half being that they are retarded. Which is another argument for another day.) People need to find ways of coping with this, and the handful of never-silent voices are right there to help. As Chuck Palahniuk puts it, Big Brother came along alright, but he’s not an invisible voyeur, he’s centre stage singing and dancing.

Did I mention that it’s really funny? Nobody knows how to talk any more. They talk, but its entirely in clichés, and most of the clichés are delivered incorrectly, and if they try to explain the clichés they stuff the explanation up, but it doesn’t matter, because nobody else can prove them wrong. Everything talks, all the time. Appliances talk. Cars talk. Televisions have no off switch. People spout advertising gibberish involuntarily when they are asleep and when they are awake. There are advertisements for products to help them, but nobody notices them jabbering anyway because that would mean they were listening to what other people were saying. The Bear and the Shark aren’t even a real bear and a shark. The fake bear and the shark aren’t even real-looking fakes.

The fact that Bachelder can wrangle this level of moronity into a brilliant novel is impressive; the fact that he turns it into a devastating, ruthlessly edited and very funny satire is borderline genius. This is one of my favourite debut novels of all time—as a millennial treatise, I would put it alongside Fight Club and, if Bachelder can keep writing like this, the world will put him alongside his hero Vonnegut.

The bad

Between the Shakespeare/Vonnegut quotations and the first ultra-short chapter (they’re never longer than 2 pages) is a brief statement of intent, couched in a slightly unco metaphor. The gist is that Bachelder wants us to take the novel in a spirit of fifty percent post-modernism and fifty percent sincerity, the two halves indivisibly mashed together. Which is unnecessary, as this mix already has a name, i.e. “good contemporary satire” and there’s already a (brilliant, funny,) chapter fifty pages in which explains this. Plus it sets a slightly over-eager tone for the story.

He could have made a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parallel, perhaps, regarding Curtis’ treasured tickets to BvS—I would rather my child visited a candy factory run by a patently unhinged hermit than Bear v. Shark II, frankly. But the lack of this kind of unnecessary bollocks is exactly what makes this so tight. TIGHT BABY. Read it, it’s frigging fantastic. Unless you really like reality TV in a totally non-ironic sense. In which case, you might start wondering who would win in a fight between a bear and a shark? Because, of course, a media savvy, discerning individual such as yourself could easily read this whole novel without once starting to think well the shark would obviously rip the bear’s leg off, easily, have you seen their teeth? Sharks are perfectly evolved killing machines; no land mammal stands a chance in a fair fight. I bet it would look really cool.

What I learnt

That I CAN experience great taste and low fat in the same product, and that it is my Constitutional right to do so. Yes MA’AM.

In short

Title: Bear v. Shark
Author: Chris Bachelder
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 0743219465
Year published: 2001
Pages: 256
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Satire, Science fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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