U.S.! by Chris BachelderWithout turning from the window, Upton said, “What do you want with me? Why have you brought me back?”
…I said, “Why?”
Upton said, “Yes. Why. I trust it’s not a prank of some kind.”
“It’s not a prank.”
“So tell me.”
“Well,” I said. “What we --” Upton turned toward me. “The reason is that…” His glasses gleamed and I could not see his eyes... “Things,” I said finally, “aren’t fair.” Upton stared at me in the dark. “Things aren’t fair is why.”
—Chris Bachelder, U.S.!
“The Left may be dead, Joe, but the fear and hatred of the Left will never die. It’s an American passion.”
—Chris Bachelder, U.S.!
Communication is a frighteningly tenuous, and ultimately failing, endeavor. Meaning recedes from language, it is lost in the transition from the idea to the writing and from the writing to the reading. Especially in public forums, such as this book review, it is nearly impossible to suppose how your words will be received. Surely this was a lesson Upton Sinclair either never learned, or else unlearned after the unlikely and overwhelming success of his novel The Jungle, which earned him a Pulitzer. Sinclair had intended the book as an indictment of labor conditions under capitalism. “I aimed for people’s hearts,” he famously said, “but hit them in the stomach.” His aim improved in the sense that most of the rest of his corpus (dozens and dozens of books) is unmistakable for anything other than socialist propaganda -- which is what it is -- but then again most of his books are out of print and even the ones which are available go mostly unread, untaught, unacknowledged.
In Chris Bachelder's new novel, U.S.!, Upton Sinclair is the dark glass through which he sees. Equal parts troubling and funny, this book about the demise of the American Left and the increasingly Lear-like madness of the American Right is impressive and affecting, a deft mash-up of the real and the allegorical, the political and the pathetic (as in pathos, that is). U.S.! imagines an America where earnest muckraker and second-rate novelist Upton Sinclair is serially resurrected from the grave by a world that still needs him, only to be just as serially assassinated by that same world, which has no interest whatsoever in being told what it needs. Aided by a fragile, mostly broke, ever-shifting cadre of supporters (identifiable to one another primarily by their discreet red shovel tattoos), Sinclair travels the country preaching his gospel to both those with ears to hear; as well as those with mouths to heckle and fingers to squeeze triggers. He’s for socialism, temperance, abstinence, and the metric system. He makes points by using exclamation points. He thinks every social ill can be solved by writing a novel about it.
Even among his kindred, mostly idealistic twenty-somethings and aging radicals, Sinclair’s tireless moralizing is an annoyance and something of an embarrassment. They love Sinclair and more importantly they believe in him, but they are also bothered by the fact that Upton’s the best they’ve got: the man-as-ethos-manifest in which they must put all of their faith. (Aside: Given the choice, I’d personally take the frail, bullet-riddled, multiply resurrected Upton Sinclair with his canon of hack prose over the modern Democratic party with its canon of suit-and-tie concessionist prose; while neither is likely to inaugurate an era of socio-economic justice, at least the metric system makes sense.)
Bachelder, who really did his homework, draws heavily from a number of Sinclair’s fiction and nonfiction works, includes a chapter on the aforementioned zeal for exclamation, and invents books -- Pharmaceutical! -- that Sinclair might have actually written had he lived as long (read=”often”) as supposed in this novel.
U.S.! is divided into three parts (with the third, “Faith in Spades,” essentially serving as an epilogue, so I’ll decline to discuss it). The first part, “Resurrection Scrapbook,” is a collection of short pieces in a plurality of forms that include book reviews (“Our Nodding Scheherazade, A Review of Pharmaceutical!”), telephone calls (“I Regret that I have but One Anonymous Phone Tip to Give to My Country: Partial Transcripts of Calls to The Toll-Free U.S. Tip Line (1-800-US-Watch) May 13, 1993”), internal corporate memos (“There Are Problems with the Demo, Lyle”), autobiographical imagetext (“The Camera Eye”), and even some straight narrative. It comprises approximately two-thirds of the book, and in it the reader becomes acquainted with Sinclair’s supporters and assassins, their respective cultures of hero-worship, and with Sinclair himself.
Bachelder’s returning readers will recognize this strategy from his debut novel Bear v. Shark, where the story of one family’s cross-country road trip to see a digitally animated bear and shark duke it out at the Darwin Dome in the sovereign nation of Las Vegas was peppered with commercials, a questionnaire, and other assorted disruptions.
As a device, it worked better in the older novel, which doubled as a polemic against hypermediated culture and its anaesthetizing effect on the human spirit. The constant tonal and formal change-ups served to reinforce the theme as well as foster a mimetic sensation of media-overdose in the text and the reader. In U.S.! that same sensation feels less than integral, in some instance even counter, to the story and its polemical agenda, which here as ever in Bachelder is earnestly foregrounded (and that, by the way, is not a criticism.) Unlike the schizophrenia that fueled and paradoxically unified Bear v. Shark, U.S.!’s “Resurrection Scrapbook” occasionally feels scattershot, though nearly all the pieces are successful on their own terms.
Bear v. Shark alumni should also recognize the Last Folksinger. If they’re like me at all they will be glad of his return. The world of U.S.! is not the same screwball dystopia where Bear v. Shark was set. In that world the Last Folksinger was an enigmatic figure, slightly underused and almost aware of his function as a sort of embodied metaphor. Here, in a much differently screwballed world, the Last Folksinger gets to be a real character, fully present and developed. He is revealed to be Sinclair’s estranged son, whose lascivious lifestyle Sinclair disapproves of. Despite calls for compassion that come from his own closest comrades, Sinclair is unblinking and thorough in his critique of his son’s music and life-choices. He keeps canceling their get-togethers to attend to the tedious business of revolution. Sinclair, it seems, is as flawed as any parent. It is through his failure to see eye-to-eye with his son that the reader will find him at his most pitiable, human, and knowable.
Part Two, “The Greenville Anti-Socialist League Fourth of July Book Burning,” is a novella-length piece that takes up the many strands of narrative from the first part and weaves them together into a kind of hanging rope. The story is quick-paced and bleak, it is determined and hopeful, it is a romp and it is some other things. It more than redeems the unfocused aspect of Part One, which is really another way of saying that Part One didn’t need all that much redeeming.
You know what? I’m ending this review. I don’t want to tell you about what happens in Part Two, since it’s the more plot-driven segment of the book and well worth discovering on your own, without being first adulterated by my paraphraseology. Besides, if I haven’t sold you on U.S.! yet, you’re obviously either some sort of fascist or else just tired of listening to me. Conversely, if you’re thinking of reading Bachelder’s book, then my job is complete, any further discussion would be redundant, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Unlike the last two Democratic presidential candidates, I know a victory when I’ve won it.
U.S.! by Chris Bachelder
Justin Taylor is an editor at Halfdrunkmuse.com and an associate editor at Pindeldyboz. Visit his personal website at http://www.justindtaylor.net/