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US! by Chris Bachelder
Tale of a writer brought back from the dead fails to live up to promise
Wednesday 30 August 2006
It's fair to say that nobody today reads Upton Sinclair, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, left-wing American writer who found fame a century ago with The Jungle, an exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry. And no wonder: his books are "vulgar, tendentious, hysterical", his ideas "extreme, outdated and irrelevant". Not my opinion: the quotes are taken from a review of Pharmaceutical!, a book written by Sinclair late in the 20th century - 40 years after his death.
They appear in Chris Bachelder's thoughtful and funny second novel, US!. Bachelder's jaw-droppingly original premise is that, since he died in 1968, Sinclair has been repeatedly disinterred and resurrected by left-wing activists to help the fight against capitalism. Every time they do, he has been gunned down in the name of liberty by right-wing extremists.
The first two-thirds of US! are taken up with a "Resurrection Scrapbook" of short chapters that bounce at tangents off various aspects of Sinclair's lives-after-death. These include: transcripts of calls to a right-wing "spot Sinclair" line; a TV debate between biographers of Sinclair's assassins; even Sinclair jokes and haikus. Woven through are chapters showing Sinclair the man, a pitiful figure smuggled from tumbledown shack to mouldy basement, but ever ready to start on a new novel.
Bachelder gathers together his themes and characters in the book's last third, the novella-length "Greenville Anti-Socialist League Fourth of July Book Burning". Here Sinclair, his assassins and one of their biographers all descend on the small town in question. His plotting in this section is pedestrian, though the humour is as brilliantly barbed as ever.
The subtle confusion of the best and worst of American values is very much what Bachelder is about. What is less certain is whether this book carries any deeper message. You might read US! as an allegory of America's paranoid refusal to countenance anything that smacks of socialism, or of the far left's inability to bring new ideas to the table. Bachelder's satire is distinctly myopic, focused on ironic detail, rather than the big picture.
He is adept at describing the ways that political will can become diluted: by fame, money, artistic concerns. Yet what looks at first like a candidate for the Great American Political Novel ends up a coruscating, though hardly unprecedented, lament for the dumbing-down of an entire culture.
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