January 2004

Kevin Leahy

features

An Interview with Chris Bachelder

Chris Bachelder is a man out of time. His literary debut, Bear v. Shark, was a sharp satire about a media-saturated culture that, had it been released a year earlier, would have been a smash hit. As it was, the book was a modest success that hit the market at a time when America wasnít in the mood for self-critical reflection and metafictional fun and games: a few weeks after September 11, 2001.

Bear v. Shark kicks off when schoolboy Curtis Norman pens a winning essay entitled ďBear v. Shark: A Reason to Live,Ē which nets him and his statistically average nuclear family tickets to the biggest spectacle in the nation: Bear v. Shark II, a fight between a computer-generated shark and bear at the Darwin Dome in the sovereign nation of Las Vegas. Along the way the Normans take a funhouse road trip through a trivia-obsessed America where TVís have no off switch, Charles Lindberg deniers abound, and breakfast cereals feature marshmallows shaped like lawyers, guns, and money.

But Bear v. Shark is more than just a collection of clever gags -- itís a savage and highly inventive attempt to wrangle a seriously out-of-control culture that threatens to collapse under the weight of its own sadness and confusion. The splintered psyches of the characters prove excellent lenses through which we view this comical, yet wholly plausible America, and Bachelderís crisp, morsel-sized chapters mimic the format of our expansive media landscape without subjecting us to the latterís debilitating empty intellectual calories. In particular, Mr. Norman (weíre never given a first name) is slowly waking to the numbing dehumanization of the consumerist lifestyle that has ultimately consumed him, and in the hands of a lesser talent his longing for authenticity could have come across as mere adolescent pining. Bachelder, however, has managed to take the venerable road novel and imbue it with a renewed sense of purpose, ensuring Bear v. Shark a growing audience as more readers discover this fine first novel.

A graduate of the University of Floridaís M.F.A. program, Chris now teaches contemporary American fiction at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Among other topics of interest, we spoke about post-9/11 fiction, the Amazon.com plebiscite, and the late, great Johnny Cash. This interview took place over the phone on October 5, 2003, in the hours before he was to attend a fish pond seminar. Details on the seminar were, unfortunately, not given.

State law requires that I make you all self-conscious by informing you that our conversation is being recorded.

No problem.

Bear v. Shark is a very televisual book, and by that I mean it deals with televisual culture, and itís also structured like TV in the sense that youíve got this fractured narrative made up of short chapters with commercial breaks. So what made you decide to structure the book like this?

Well, several reasons. I think one is, itís the sort of tried-and-true method of using the tools of the object that youíre satirizing. Iím poking fun at television, and so dressing the book up as television is a part of that. Another thing is, I tend to think of shorter pieces as lending themselves better to a comic structure. Like how Vonnegut talks about his books as mosaics of jokes, how writing jokes is like setting a mousetrap and springing it. And so I think I can set up punch lines and then pop them much better in little fragmented pieces than I can in an extended narrative.

So the short rhythm just works better for you than a longer narrative.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I love Donald Antrimís work, and he manages to do it in three books without any break, even white space, much less a chapter break, but I think thatís much harder to do. And so, Iím interested in the sort of "set up, spring-the-mousetrap-and-then-thereís-a-new-chapter," approach, which just felt more natural. The third thing is that itís my first stab at a novel. I hadnít written much fiction before, and it was the only way I could write it. I couldnít handle a long plot, I couldnít handle a long involved narrative, so I had to break it up into pieces, so it was very practical in that sense. I was really just trying to write a novel the only way that I could, and at some point I said to myself "Okay, this has got to work at a thematic level too otherwise it wonít work at all," but it happened to.

Let me ask, when you write, do you tend to write in big arcs, or just sketch out scenes in your head and then you look for unifying themes?

HmmmÖ

I mean, do you set out to construct a plot, or start writing scenes and you just kind of dust off a story like an archaeologist would and discover this larger skeleton of a plot running through them?

Iíd say a combination. I am a structure guy, Iím kind of an architecture guy and thatís why Iím drawn to the novel and to the writers I like reading, so I did have this overall idea. The other thing is that a road novel is a great first novel to write; the plot is A to B, the plot is inherent in the novel. So, I didnít have to think too much about plotting. I knew it was going to end in Las Vegas, I knew it was going to end at the Darwin Dome, but as I went, to answer the other half of your question, I discovered new things, new gags and gimmicks, and ways to bring back earlier parts of the book. I like the comic recycling of material through the book, so thereís always that process of discovery.

I notice you have certain jokes that become these little leitmotifs.

Exactly, and thatís the sort of thing thatís not planned for the most part, that comes from the day-to day process of sitting there and just seizing the opportunity.

You were talking about Vegas and the Darwin dome, and that brings to mind something else I wanted to ask you about, which is one of the touches that I really enjoyed Ė how Vegas was its own sovereign nation, and I kind of thought that you could take that three different ways, which is that A, Vegas is just so outside the norm of American life that it really deserves to be its own country, and theyíre kind of playing up that angle right now, if youíve seen their commercialsÖ

Oh really?

I think their tag line is, ďVegas Ė what happens here, stays here.Ē

[laughing] Oh, thatís funny.

Or B, that Vegas, being the entertainment capital of the world, and you can disabuse me of this notion if Iím way off base here, I thought you were saying that Vegas would naturally be alone because of the aloneness that necessarily results from surrounding yourself with all these amusements instead of real relationshipsÖ

Ohhh Ė

Or the third thing is that C, that Iím reading way too much into a throwaway gag.

I really -- I really like that second one, and I wish that it had been a conscious intent -- Iím not sure it was, but I like that idea. Especially in the sense -- Wallace talks about this too, about how lonely watching television and our entertainments can make us -- that television produces that isolation, but I canít say that I was going for it intentionally.

You mentioned Wallace, and at one point in your book thereís this authorial intrusion on your part where youíre essentially apologizing for channeling David Foster Wallace in some areas, but what Bear v. Shark really seemed like to me was a response to an essay that Wallace wrote years ago, an essay called "U.S. Fiction and Television"Ö

Yeah.

Which should really be required reading for any writer.

I agree, I agree, and your mentioning that is a little spooky because I feel so transparent as a writer -- Iíd written maybe a hundred pages of Bear v. Shark and I was reading the Wallace essay and was blown away, and itís one of those things I keep coming back to.

Itís one of those pieces Iíll reread every six months or so.

Yeah, exactly, refresh myself with the ideas, and itís so smart, but it I was really despairing as I read it because I thought "Iím doing exactly what he says that writers shouldnít do." I was so convinced of his critique of some strands of postmodern fiction that I thought "I canít finish this book" and so I was at the end of part one when I read that. And the weirdness of part two of the book really comes out of that essay. I sensed that I was going to have to turn this book around in some way, and I think it got swallowed up again by my original idea of the book, but Wallaceís voice was always in the back of my head when I was finishing it.

So as a satirist, you have to lampoon and report on a lot of real-life details, but do you ever find it hard to keep ahead of real life?

Yeah, exactly. I joke a lot about stuff thatís going on, but I only half-joke when I do it.

You realize that, with the California recall, we might be only a few days away from the first step of Demolition Man coming true.

Yeah, itís getting more and more difficult to spoof this culture. Just turn on the TV, turn on CNN and thereís this constant coverage with those banners and thereís so many things to take in at once.

And thatís reflected in the oversaturation of information in the book with the characters spouting these misapprehended sayings, getting their random factoids confused. There are several parts in the beginning where the protagonist, Mr. Norman, is laying on his couch watching television and in his head heís regurgitating all these things heís learned from television and heís getting them mixed up ever so slightly, but the important thing is that they sound trueÖ

Right.

So how did you balance the demands of explaining your plot and confusing your readers while keeping them engaged in the story?

Well, obviously I thought of the book as an assault on the reader in a sense, [mutual laughter] overwhelm the reader in the sort of mimetic way that the characters were getting overwhelmed, that weíre all getting overwhelmed. Weíre poisoned, and the bookís just as much about the uses of language, the way that the language of advertising, of products, how it seeps in and poisons us. So yeah, I was definitely going for a certain amount of confusion.

One of the fake commercials in the book, I think it was for a product called Sexy Pants, it was a very modern commercial in the sense that it mimicked what advertising companies were just starting to do, using this very odd come-on to buy their product, this "You are the rebel, you know youíre being manipulated, you arenít going to be fooled by this commercial," shtick, and I thought that that part of the book really captured the zeitgeist of the '90s, where you had this time of peace and prosperity and consumerism and also this unrelenting cynicism.

Yeah, and a real rhetorical savvy on the part of the people whoíre selling us things. Because at this point the appeal of the product is "hey, they know Iím smart, they know I donít want to buy this product, so Iím going to buy the product." Itís weird to have Kobe Bryant selling us Sprite in those "obey your thirst" commercials, like the adís saying "come on, you think Spriteís gonna make you a better basketball player? Itís not." And yet theyíre paying a basketball player millions of dollars to sell it. I think that comes out of that same Wallace essay too.

Now, Bear v. Shark came out in what, November, October of 2001?

Yeah. [ruefully]

You know -- and by the way your voice just sounded, I think you know where Iím going -- the book is really this funny/sad snapshot of the 90ís, where we had this incredible peacetime era, and then all of a sudden weíve got 9/11 and weíre just violently thrust from all that into war, recession, and the whole national mood just darkened and got a good shot of gravitas in the arm. So how do you as a writer respond to all that?

Well, you said darker but itís also gotten so extraordinarily patriotic now, and all of a sudden nobody wants analysis, nobody wants diagnosis. And so the timing was bad, the timing of my career as a satirist is bad probably in general.

You wrote a piece for McSweeneyís shortly after that called "My Beard, Reviewed," where you were taking what looked like Amazon reviews of BvSÖ

[laughing] Yeah.

Were those basically transcriptions of some of your Amazon.com reader reviews?

Filtered through, you know, the imagination and exaggerated, and also other peopleís just having read those and me probably paying just a little too much attention as a first-time novelist to what people were saying about the book. So, I think I started in just a playful, satirical spirit of sort of poking fun at that, that democracy of Amazon customers where everybody gets a voice, whether they should have one or not.

The ultimate plebiscite.

Exactly. So I started with that and then I thought "Oh this is pretty transparently a bitter response to my own reviews," and the beard was a fairly transparent analogy to the book. But the great thing about fiction is that itíll never be short of forms because thereís always new discursive modes that pop up. Fiction feeds on those, and thatís one of the biggest kicks I get out of writing in general.

We talked a little about how TV now does a better job of explaining the day-to-day events and does the legwork of showcasing whatís normal in American life, so does the novel move to where thereís a vacuum, to explain these extraordinary things that happen? I mean, you have something like 9/11, like the JFK assassination, something that leaves this huge psychic thumbprint in the public consciousness, and even though television can respond instantly to the public mood, plus we have these insta-books that come out a few weeks afterwards, how do novels compete with that? Or do you even try to compete with that? How are they going to help us digest these huge cultural changes?

Oh, gosh, thatís huge. Let me try to tackle that from several directions. One, I donít think -- Neil Postman wrote a book I like a lot and actually use in Bear v. SharkÖ

Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Yeah, I like that book a lot but I disagree with his view that television is sort of -- he has this teleological view of television as a medium in that it naturally leads to what we have as television now -- the quick image, the lack of reflection -- and itís so hard for me to imagine that a better, smarter, more reflective culture wouldnít have better, smarter, more reflective television programming.

So you donít think that television necessarily lends itself best to emotional images coupled with manipulative words.

I donít believe thereís something inherent in the medium, no. I think the average image on television is less than two seconds, so it works well as that kind of tool, but the fact that we donít have a Noam Chomsky interview on NBC has more to do with culture and politics and who owns the media than it does with the kind of discourse thatís permitted on TV, or with the medium in general.

But I donít know, the novelist is becoming less and less important, and the novel is also becoming as market-driven as television, or close. I think itís traditionally been a place where thereís an idea of art and publishers will stick with an author and grow an author and itís kind of like community service because itís important. Itís diagnostic, itís a canary in the coal mine, its something good for the culture. But publishing companies are going the way of all media, so itís pretty grim because its more and more market-based for novels so Iím not sure youíre going to see the same diversity, those voices that we had with Coover and Barthemele and Vonnegut.

Vonnegut has talked about feeling like a failure because of his first two books, and I think he sold cars for a while until he really broke through with Slaughterhouse Five.

Exactly, and that speaks to discipline and persistence, and I think also perhaps to an attitude among publishers back then that they would stick with somebody they believed in, and -- I donít know, I donít want any of this to sound like, you knowÖ

Anti-corporate whining?

[laughing] Well no, I donít mind anti-corporate whining. Itís just much more difficult now, itís all sales figures and how you did. Itís like baseball and football, thereís just less team loyalty to the players. So there is a sense that weíre on the verge of something new in digesting these changes, and Iím interested in what that novel can do, or can return to, but I donít feel all that hopeful about it, I have to say.

I think in response to market pressures and to this sense of -- Delillo places it with the JFK assassination, he says we lack a sense of a manageable reality, so 9/11 is those bullets in Dallas writ large in terms of the chaos in our lives. And with the sense that realityís less manageable and with market pressures too, I see novelists moving away from a social or political canvas, or from being diagnosticÖ

Because theyíre afraid their books wonít sell well?

Well, thatís it. The way that those concerns can seep into your head. Iím reading these Doctorow interviews from the '70s, around then Ragtime came out, and heís just saying, "Weíve all become novelists for the Republican party." Thereís this move in American fiction towards doing just domestic realism and, this way that American writers have really just taken themselves out of the social and political realm. But youíre catching me at a weird time because Iím really in this project right now, writing this really, really strange thing about Upton Sinclair, the resurrection -- the literal resurrection -- of Upton Sinclair. Really. Iím delving into the art of the turn of the century and the socialist "art-as-a-class-weapon" kind of stuff, which has been completely discredited critically, and sometimes for good reasons, because art isnít pamphlets, it isnít manifestoes, but at the same time, Iím a little worried about the sense that American art has become so middle class in its concerns.

So tell me more about this Upton Sinclair project. Is it a novel?

Well, I donít even know what Iíd call it.

Well, give us a little taste.

Right now itís a collection of tiny pieces, and the premise is the sort of repeated assassination and resurrection of Upton Sinclair in the years since the first time he actually died the first time in 1968. Iím really having fun with ideas of political satire not only with the move to the right in the culture at large, but because it also lets me play at a metafictional level with ideas of political fiction and the fate of political fiction, if that makes sense. So itís simultaneously a critique of culture and politics but also a book about books about political fiction.

Who do you like in terms of political fiction writers?

Well, you know, nobody now is out there in the way that -- if you look at how Sinclair is in the end of The Jungle.

No, nobodyís doing that.

Right, and thatís probably a good thing, too. I donít mean to be saying that we should go back to The Iron Heel or whatever, but I think Delilloís interested in politics; George Saunders, I think, just has savage political critique.

Oh, yeah. Incidentally, Iíve always felt his books could have all been titled Jobs Iíve Hated.

Yeah, I agree, but what I love too is that heís so funny, and thatís the tack Iím trying to take, to make what I write darkly comic and satirical.

Weíve talked a lot about these huge themes, so let me ask you something a little more personal. When you have an idea, how much of it are you able to get on the page, intact?

You know, it varies. When Iím really writing well, and I do think in these little bits, these Bear v. Shark length pieces, I can sit down and write and have it be what Iím going for. Iím fairly meticulous as Iím writing; Iím not the kind of writer whoís going to just get it all down and then later go back and shape it, because Iím trying to get the comic rhythms just right. Iím not necessarily interested in large sweeping arcs or characters in such a way that Iíll get it down and shape it later. Itís really important to me to have it be rhythmically precise line to line. So, in a first draft I write fairly slowly and meticulously. I do go back and revise of course, and have to sort of rein myself in on all the gags, but I find that when Iím writing well and have a good idea I can get a good first pass at it.

Are there any books that you read, and here you can expand this to movies and music and any kind of art -- are there any books that you read sometimes to jump-start your own writing, that get you excited about the possibilities of fiction and art?

Mmmm, you know, I made this earlier proclamation about political and social art but I have to say Iím really drawn to just good prose stylists, really comic stylists. I love Thomas McGuane, Padgett Powell, and Barry Hannah, and Mary Robison. Thereís such a joy line-to-line in the way they manipulate syntax and their humor, so those are people who always make me want to write because they get me excited about the possibilities of language and of crafting sentences and being funny.

I also like Guided By Voices and Centro-matic, theses bands that are really prolific.

Thatís excellent. I forget his name, Bob-something-or-other from Guided By Voices, he was a middle-school teacher, wasnít he?

He was, and apparently the principal would come in to check up on his teaching and heíd be like, designing his album covers Ė

Nice little ďSchool of RockĒ story there.

I know. The way he tells it, he walked into the teacherís lounge and said, "Iím gonna quit," and they asked why and he said, "Cause I wanna be a rock star," and he was like, 35 years old. I donít know if you know 69 Love Songs by Magnetic Fields?

No, not familiar, unfortunately.

Itís three volumes, so thereís just a sense of excess, and some of itís short and catchy, and a lot of it ends up working. Thatís how Iím thinking of this current project Iím working on. Small pieces, some that work better than others, but hopefully all of them having a sort of ragged charm in the same way as these bands that I like. Itís funny because in fiction my tastes run towards the ironic, and I do listen to bands like Pavement and that sort of slacker ironic rock, but I also love that folk and that folk rock tradition, the Americana, Son Volt, and in my music I look for something different than in fiction, I think.

So when can we expect to see something on this new project, this Upton Sinclair thing youíre working on, either whole or in excerpts?

Well, thereís another novel after Bear v. Shark called Virtual Tour, and itís one Iíve rewritten several times from several different points of view -- I feel that if there were a fourth- or fifth-person point of view option I would have written it in those tooÖ

What would fourth person point-of-view look like?

I donít know, [laughing] I donít know. So itís a book that Iíve worked a long time on, and I have a draft that I like, but I feel that this is the trouble with artists who are interested in formal experimentation and also perhaps, political critique and diagnosis: when your books are rejected, you can never quite know if itís because theyíre badÖ

Or because they didnít like your politics.

Right, or if itís not a good market.

So is there more pressure, the second time around?

Yeah, there is.

Because people talk to death about the sophomore novel, like you have to prove that the first one wasnít a fluke.

Yeah, and Iím lucky. And itís a weird luck, but I was lucky in a sense that, with somebody like Eugenides, with The Virgin Suicides, everybody went nuts. So thatís got to be just crippling pressure, and I certainly wasnít operating under that, which was nice. I didnít have a huge advance, I wasnít under contract for the second novel and all that.

So, without even knowing what itís about, the title Virtual Tour sounds like this next book is going to share a lot of thematic material with Bear v. Shark.

Youíre exactly right.

Well, running through Bear v. Shark thereís this whole questioning of what reality is, and thereís several instances of the fake overtaking the real -- youíve got the protagonist, Mr. Norman, whoís job it is to manufacture fake office furniture for these model homes, but eventually people start buying the fake phones and fax machines and whatever for their real homes because theyíre more stylish. Youíve got -- I mean, the fightís between a computer-generated bear and shark! So what is it that excites you about the, I guess youíd call it Baudrillardian sense of fakeness, of hyperreality, what excites you about that?

I donít know if Iíd say exciting so much as Iíd say terrifying, which is what I was really going for in the chapter that traces the sort of Orson Welles moment of the Halloween Martian invasion to the pro wrestler (Owen Hart) who fell to his death and people thought it was fake. Itís a really small chapter but itís one of my favorites, where the people who were listening to War of the Worlds -- their default position was credibility, they thought it was real. But the people who watched that wrestler fall to his death, they all watched it happen, but their default mental position was that it was fake. And it gets so twisted up in that the really common response to 9/11 was that it felt like watching a movie. I had that sense too, when people were saying "The towers coming down reminded me of a movie." I mean itís awful, but it also feels true.

I remember that too -- I think The Onion ran an article saying ďLife Turns into Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.Ē

Yeah, so what happens when life reminds us of a simulation of life? Thatís a bizarre moment. You know, thereís this quote from 1961 -- Iím teaching contemporary American fiction right now, so thatís why Iím up on all these guys -- Roth is saying that the writer in the mid 20th century has his hands full just trying to represent this sickening, lunatic reality that ultimately embarrasses oneís own imagination -- and thatís í61! Itís pre-JFK, which Delillo cites as the key moment in our culture, and itís pre-reality TV, and itís all just accelerated from there.

That really brings us back to what we talked about a while ago, about trying to keep fiction ahead of reality. Itís like you have to choose a point on a scale where at one end is the absurd and at the other end is the plausible, but they keep moving the goalposts on everyone.

Letís talk about something totally different and leave the heavy stuff behind for a second. This past year thereís been a lot of celebrity deaths, the celebrities just dropping like flies lately. Who are you going to miss and why?

Of recent celebrity deaths?

Letís say from the last two years.

Johnny Cash.

Oh! I was really hoping you were going to say that!

I mean, what can I say that hasnít been said already about Johnny Cash? Him dying -- that was a tough one. I just feel he was an important American icon, and I really like the fact that late in his career he enjoyed a critical comeback and a lot of attention.

Thereís this great story about Cash from a few years ago, after he won the Grammy for his album Unchained, where he took out this full-page ad in Billboard -- have you seen this?

NoÖ

Well the thing is that because Cash sang country and folk and gospel and Scottish ballads and whatnot, the music industry couldnít categorize him and had long-since written him off as this has-been. So then he wins a Grammy and takes out this full-page ad that says something like, ďJohnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin would like to acknowledge the country music establishment for their support all these years,Ē and it had this awesome picture of Cash from 1970 where heís scowling and giving the camera the finger.

Oh, thatís great. And that ties in exactly to what weíve been talking about before, about artificiality versus authenticity. I mean, hereís a guy who just strikes you as completely authentic, you know?

Yeah. Have you ever read his autobiography Cash, the one he wrote in the '90s?

NoÖ

He talks about what being "real country" isÖ and heís like ďNowadays people just put on some boots and a hat and lean against a truck and call themselves country.Ē And heís like, ďIs it them whoís country or is it the clothes thatíre country? Frankly, I donít know.Ē

Oh, thatís funny, because he does know.

Oh he does, but heís too polite to call it on the poseurs. Thatís excellent, because Iíll be missing him a ton too. Well, as a closer, would you like to spout any fashionable or nonsensical French literary theories?

[laughing] Thank you, but I think Iím going to have to pass on that.