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Book review: <i>U.S.!</i> by Chris Bachelder

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the cover of the book

If this was a guy at a concert, it would be that over-earnest guy handing out flyers in the sun who you feel sorry for, even though he's a bit of a dick. But then look! He has a fun girlfriend, so it's OK.

Cover

Not bad. A black & white photograph of Upton Sinclair, carefully overlaid with a modern T-shirt. Colours are tones of brown and red (appropriate), present in text and a bullseye over Upton's chest. It's subtler than it sounds, because the colours are well chosen (the red is a good one) and the photograph seems uncanny until your realise it's the subtle combination of the two eras into one image. People looked and posed differently in old photos.

Plot

Bachelder happily hijacks the life of American writer Upton Sinclair (whose initials form the title) then flies it through a black hole into a parallel dimension. In this alternate present Sinclair completed his real output (including his best known, "The Jungle"), but rather than dying in '68, aged 90, was assassinated slightly earlier by an upstanding crack-shot redneck who objected to Upton's socialist views. Upton is then resurrected by young lefty sympathisers, assassinated by another redneck, resurrected again, assassinated by a redneck with a harpoon, and so on, up to the present, where the author has just been brought to life once again, hunted, scarred and decrepit but unbowed. Will Upton and his youthful comrades survive long enough to publish another book? Or will Upton's first assassin come out of retirement for another shot at the title?

The good

It's a clever idea, this one. Not, perhaps, quite as clever as that of Bachelder's debut, the amazing Bear V Shark, but more fluid and subtle. Bachelder essentially converts a faded American socialist author into a walking, breathing personification of the country's liberal/socialist left wing. With this trick, he is able to convey, primarily through character, the essential qualities of the far left, particularly the uncommon U.S. brand. He does this with ease for the length of many well-wrought scenes, which are, almost incidentally, funny, true, embarrassing and fundamentally tolerant of human flaws, particularly misdirected compassion and the battle with ego. One of the book's many solid running jokes is that Upton, as a writer, is completely unable to manifest the tools Bachelder uses to resurrect him here; at least as far as we are told, Sinclair's writing is the nadir of the Show Don't Tell Rule, at which Bachelder, instead, excels. There's a whole chapter devoted to an academic discussion of the number of exclamation marks used by Sinclair in his hacky polemics, where children cry "Oh Papa!" and scarce attention is given to apolitical motivations. These, obviously, define nearly all human beings nearly all of the time, and this is the blazing neon flaw in Sinclair's Marxist influences.

The backbone of tolerance is the ability to acknowledge, pity, and eventually forgive the weaknesses of our fellow man, and Bachelder is never guilty of a blinkered view of his subject. Upton (at least here) is a bad writer, an immature old man with too much energy, little of which he spends on the individuals around him, including his own son (The Last Folk Singer, in fact, Bachelder's Kilgore-Trout-plus-Dylan character, returning from Bear V Shark). He is complacent in his self-worth and the righteousness of his ideals, which are frequently at odds with those even of his allies. He is wrong, or at least hugely misguided, regarding nearly every belief he holds, from telekinesis and the metric system through to Communism and literature. But if Upton's such a worthless, embarrassing relic, why do people keep resurrecting him? And why would anyone bother risking jail to kill him? And why are his killers made into the celebrities they've become? The answers, for all their disarray, exist wholly in the characters, and for that Bachelder deserves praise.

U.S.! is, as you might have guessed, a very organic, human-scaled book. Doubly so, beside the author's debut; Bear V Shark was one of those books I love, but which are not to everyone's taste - stylistic broken mirrors, tumbles of glorious, fetishistically buffed surfaces with jagged edges that don't quite fit together. Number9Dream and Neuromancer. People love or hate them, in short. U.S.! is not like this. The Vonnegutian influences still pervade - short chapters, tart dialogue, fourth-wall gymnastics, fun post-modern gestures and all the fat cut off with a fucking big knife. Bachelder is still, also, cynical, but his cynicism is youthful, still in touch with the ideals of the hero, if not willing to grant them a shred of un-earned respect. Vonnegut's cynicism was forged in Slaughterhouse Five, and that sort of cynicism allows little tolerance and knows no bounds of age. So, in terms of general readership, U.S.! probably represents a good move for the author. On the other hand, it is a book about a hideously unfashionable Commie writer who, frankly, few have now read. So maybe not.

The bad

Well that was basically it; the flipside of my theory is that U.S.!, while more grounded and organic than BVS, is also less flashy and loud. And, it must be said, funny. Once Bachelder has a few more books under his belt the contrast will no doubt seem less sharp, but for now I would have to say - what am I talking about? None of you gits has even READ Bear V Shark, have you? It's awesome. Read it, then read this. Or don't. It's up to you. There's a lot going on in both of them. U.S.! is a bit more readable, but BVS is a bit more fun and a bit more funny. Bachelder's path as an author to follow, on the other hand, allows no divergence at all, so why not get on the Chris B train before everyone else does. Come on, join me, it'll offset all that Vonnegut we haven't read yet.

Oh - one other thing - it's a heck of a pity that Bachelder missed the chance for himself and Upton to see one of his books, Oil! (note exclamation mark), turned into an Oscar-winning film last year - Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. The undead Upton Sinclair dodging bullets at the Academy Awards? Now THAT would have been a fertile corner of the plot garden.

This is a great book. The anthropomorphication of a political ideal has been done before but Bachelder, as in BVS, makes it feel utterly contemporary. If he can keep writing like this, he's well on his way to being a Gen X Vonnegut or Heller, with less fat and no bitter aftertaste.

What I learnt

Who Upton Sinclair was; I'd heard of The Jungle, but only (sorry Upton) in the context of exposing animal cruelty. (It was a book about the genuinely sorry plight of American meatworkers, but came to prominence instead due to its exposing of the hideously unhygienic conditions in which they produced food for the tables of the rich and poor - "I aimed for the public's heart," said Upton, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach.")

In short

Title: U.S.!
Author: Chris Bachelder
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747585954
Year published: 2007
Pages: 320
Genre(s): Contemporary literature
Rating: 
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