BLOOMSBURY, £10.99. Order for £9.99 (free p&p) on 08700 798 897
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 And no wonder: his books are "vulgar, tendentious, hysterical", his ideas "extreme, outdated and irrelevant".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.
'At times I thought he was me'film
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Film More romcom than S&M
Review: The Imitation Gamefilm
Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars
TVNetflix gets cryptic
TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth
Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 2 Anti-gay hate preacher accidentally tweets 4,000 followers cartoon clip of him 'confessing' to be a 'homosexual sodomite'
- 3 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 4 Grayson Perry: London needs affordable housing because 'rich people don't create culture'
- 5 Kenya bus attack: Al-Shabaab militants kill 28 non-Muslims who failed to recite Koran
Lee Evans announces his retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
Iggy Azalea responds to Eminem rape lyrics: 'I'm bored of old men threatening young women'
Beyoncé '7/11' music video: Star bounces on bed in low-fi homage to viral video
Angelina Jolie confirms retirement from acting: 'I've never been comfortable on-screen'
Lana Del Rey rape video: Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking leaked footage
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Revealed: How the world gets rich – from privatising British public services
Myleene Klass: Ed Miliband 'strikes back' by comparing UK's need for Labour's mansion tax to Hear'Say track