“Given a relatively level playing field – i.e. water deep enough so that a shark could manoeuvre proficiently but shallow enough so that a bear could stand and operate with its characteristic dexterity – who would win in a fight between a bear and a shark?”
You’d be surprised at the number of articles that start with those words. Google will come up with between 6 and 1,440 identical matches, depending on how many hyphens or commas you put in. Chris Bachelder’s 2001 novel “Bear Vs Shark” leaves the question unanswered, though there are plenty of opinions out there. This wasn’t a question I levelled at Chris either (though if you do a quick search you find that Chris has stated his opinion previously and emphatically as shark). There is, of course, no conclusive answer. Yet. In the book he describes the question as one that people respond to instinctively, on a gut level, and then they come up with reasons to justify it. Similarly, it seems likely that (were there ever to be a contest like this) whoever lost would have a hundred reasons why the playing field wasn’t level – the water not deep enough/too deep, the bear’s head not large enough etc etc. I have read this novel several times over the years and always found something new with each reading. Most notably, I loved the book before I became a father, yet parenthood brought a new dynamic to the relationships between the father and his family, one that I found particularly poignant. At the time of writing Chris had no children of his own, though now he is married with a family.
Bear vs Shark centres around a nuclear family who win access to a televised event to beat all others – the contest of the novel’s title – and everyone in the country has an opinion on who will win. Bearing in mind that this novel was written before Big Brother and reality TV really took an obsessive hold on the media, did Chris see this coming? “Bear v. Shark was my first novel. I didn’t have a very good idea of what I was doing, but I was having fun, writing with energy and pleasure. I see it now as undisciplined, but I can appreciate the exuberance. The point is, I was just trying to write a book, be funny, make fun of my ridiculous country. I wasn’t really thinking in terms of predicting the future, or foreseeing media trends. It was supposed to be absurd, outlandish. It was, however, not as outlandish as I had imagined. I think if I had foreseen the changes you mention, I would not have written the book. Why write a futuristic book that sees only about three months into the future? These reality shows are trashy but they are wildly entertaining. I hate them and I like them. That’s the way I feel about much of American culture—intellectually I can’t stand it, and yet I feel myself drawn toward it. That’s a bit of what the book is about. A bear fighting a shark is stupid, and yet it’s kind of fun to think about. I suppose I’m making fun of it while also trying to get readers interested in it.”
The novel was an amazing debut for the author, and perhaps would have captured more attention had it not have been released just days after one of the biggest tragedies of this century. 9/11 changed the attitude of America, and whilst the mildly cynical future that Bachelder created aptly recreates the 90’s as well as projecting a surprisingly possible future, it doesn’t preach the togetherness that followed 9/11 and pulled America in a single direction. Since then, however, it came through as a sleeper hit and, along with Bachelder’s free-to-download “career progression” novel “Lessons in Virtual Reality Photography”, it has ensured an interesting career on the fringes of literature as art. Both books were, for me, unique masterpieces. I also found myself very glad that my own novel was already complete at that time, so that I couldn’t be influenced by Bachelder’s “Lessons…”, which is the only other book I have ever seen written entirely second person. Reading more like an instruction manual, the novel directs how the lead character should get back with an ex-girlfriend, get a new career as a virtual reality tour photographer (“no, it’s not filmed”) and then how he should make it all go wrong. The story is laconic and laid back, whilst the style elevates it to something unique. On describing making the novel free-to-download and whether this paid off, Chris says “The decision was entirely practical. I had no luck publishing the book as a regular book. McSweeney’s offered to do it as an e-book, and I thought it sounded like a good idea. I had worked hard on the novel and it was a way for me to get it out there to readers—probably more readers than I would have reached with a regular book. We had fun designing it, and I was happy the way it turned out. The decision did not “pay off” literally because the book is free and nobody made a dime. But it certainly was worth it to me to have the book available, and I’m glad we didn’t charge money for it. Also, given the technological premise of the novel, the e-book form seemed like a natural fit.” McSweeney’s is a major force in introducing new and talented writers. By 2004, 45,000 people had downloaded the novel from the McSweeney’s site, far more people than required to buy a paperback in order to get it to number one in the book charts.
Chris Bachelder is not, however, a career writer. This seems to be true for many writers now, when getting published, or even representation, is a lottery. He currently teaches fiction workshops for the next generation of writers in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers
MFA Program for Poets & Writers
The MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a graduate creative writing program.-History:The MFA Program for Poets & Writers was founded in the 1960s by poet Joseph Langland and is part of the English Department at the University of Massachusetts…
at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This puts him in a prime position to see the calibre and direction of new writing and to offer guidance to aspiring writers in the UK. Teaching writing also keeps him in close contact with the next generation of authors and the current state of fiction and literature in general. So should we be worried that it’s so hard to get published, and how will the market fare with so many celebrity autobiographies hitting the shelves and so much fiction never seeing print? Is this a downturn in the whole field? “My students are extraordinarily talented. I am consistently amazed at the quality of work they produce. So based on my students, as well as on many fine younger writers who are publishing, it seems to me that literature is doing just fine. It’s thriving, in fact, though of course nobody reads it. But the work I see is so diverse that it would be impossible to predict some kind of trend or movement. Our writing program does not have a distinct aesthetic. We just want good writers, and we get them. When they come, they write all kinds of things, and the only thing it all has in common is its quality.” And when he is not reading new unpublished fiction? “When I was younger, I had my small shelf of favourites and influences. I used to read a lot of so-called experimental work, and I used to read almost exclusively contemporary fiction. As I get older and as I think about my reading in terms of my teaching, I find that my tastes are much broader. I recently taught a course on the short story in which we read a total of 158 stories by Hawthorne, Chekhov, Cheever, and Carver. That was very exciting for me.“
The opportunity to learn from an author such as Chris Bachelder is something special. The advice he is most frequently gives is “I think it’s important for young writers to learn how to read like a writer, with an awareness of craft and technique. I think it’s important to learn how to pay close attention, how to look at something. And I think it’s important to learn how to get lost in a story so that surprise is possible.”
Bachelder was born in 1971 in Minneapolis, Minnesota in a post-60’s America, and spent his growing years in small town Christiansburg, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Christiansburg has a population of about 17,500 and has 39 churches (various Western/Christian-based denominations), which is roughly one church for every 450 people. There is a sense of displaced community about his books and the interactions between people give a sharp sense about people who are pushed to operate outside the normal boundaries of social interactions.
Bachelder’s most recently published novel focuses on the late author Upton Sinclair, a huge figure in America’s socialist history and someone I had never heard of until Bachelder’s book. Since that moment, however, I’ve heard of him frequently, most recently as the author of the novel “Oil!” that became “There Will Be Blood”. I have to admit though, I don’t really get the appeal. In a largely westernised world, and a largely Americanised England, you kind of expect to “get” cultural references when they cross the Atlantic so I’m always a little stumped by those that don’t resonate. Chris explains to me the importance of Sinclair in US culture. “Sinclair was a Socialist crusader and an unabashedly political novelist of the early twentieth century. He was prolific, determined, idealistic, stubborn, principled, vain, and egomaniacal. He thought he could change the world through his fiction, and he tried to do it. He wrote with purpose, and he had no patience for the merely beautiful or elegant. Today we call him a bad writer, and we regard his books as propaganda, not art. He represents a kind of American writer that is extinct.
Sinclair allowed me to explore issues of political art that I find urgent and vexing. I wanted to engage the world. I wanted to make some small whimper as the ship goes down. The question is, How to be political and still be an artist? Sinclair did it poorly, crudely, and yet I admire his passion and his conviction. His way is perhaps not the best way, but the alternative can’t be to ignore the political. I have a tremendous ambivalence toward Sinclair—I admire him and I find him exasperating. This ambivalence proved to be fruitful in terms of writing the novel. It’s good to work from confusion (as Sinclair never did). I bring him back to life as a way to resurrect the political novel, or to resurrect a discussion about the political novel. And I bring him back as a way to suggest that the revolutionary spirit, while diminished to nearly nothing, cannot be eradicated completely. And the idea of his resurrection—his refusal to die—fits well with his personality. In his life he refused to be dismissed, he kept coming back for more bad reviews and abuse. Sinclair was a specific way for me to explore abstract ideas, and I worked hard to make him a flesh-and-blood character as well.”
Throughout Chris’s work there is a real sense of the absurd but also a biting satire, whether intentional or not. “Perhaps I am a kind of gloomy clown. I don’t go around guffawing. I tend to be pretty moody and frightened of global collapse. I’m interested in the comic as a writer, but that’s a craft, it’s technical. It’s work. My wife and my daughters make me laugh. I laugh occasionally in the classes I teach, among my students. I laugh at readings, in a crowd of people laughing. When I read very funny fiction or watch funny television, I don’t tend to laugh. I tend to nod my head and say, “That’s very funny.””
His next book brings him, perhaps, a little more close to home and with slightly less surreality to it. “I have a book coming out in early 2011. It’s domestic and fairly plotless and non-satirical. I suppose it’s interested, broadly speaking, in contemporary fatherhood and marriage. But it’s also interested in the question of how much of the world’s trouble is my business and my responsibility. With the internet, we can see all the world’s problems, but we can’t do a thing about them. Feeling terrible about it doesn’t help (and it often makes you a bad spouse and father), but ignoring it can’t be correct, either. My main character is a guy who makes himself click on those terrible headlines about disasters and accidents and suffering. He has trouble enjoying his life. He thinks too much.“
And yet, to me, this in itself seems satirical. With recent and impending global political changes comes a greater awareness of the need for a common good and awareness of how our actions affect others.
The basics start at home, within our own lives, so I asked Chris simply what his daily routine would involve. “I have two young daughters, so my routines are domestic and child-related. My wife is also a writer, and we’ve worked out our days so that we’ll each have some time to work (either on writing or teaching) and to get some exercise. I have a pretty simple life—I read, write, teach, and spend time with my family. I don’t crave a more complicated or exciting existence.”
To me, this seems like a Utopian balance he is achieving and I don’t doubt that many would aspire to create that kind of purity in their life, and wish him a long and happy life to enjoy it. From these seeds may grow mighty oaks. I finally ask Chris is there is any question he would like to have been asked, and he responds:
Q [from the end of Donald Barthelme’s story “Porcupines at the University”]: Are porcupines wonderful? Are they what I need?
Words: Alasdair Kay