Sunday, June 18, 2006

U.S.! By Chris Bachelder

 (Book Review)

It seems like a lot of people these days get their reading lists off of talk radio, and I must add myself to the list. I first heard of this book after listening to an NPR show (via an internet cafe) whilst still in Japan. (You can listen to the program here if you want.) I thought to myself, “That sounds like a really cool idea for a book,” and when I got back to the USA this was one of my first purchases.

The idea of the book is that Upton Sinclair (who you might remember from your high school days as the author of “The Jungle”) is brought back to life by modern day liberals who seek to reinvigorate the leftist cause. He is subsequently assassinated by the right, brought back to life again, assassinated again, and so on. The book is a satire on modern politics, both the left and the right.

As ideas go, I thought this sounded just silly enough to be kind of cool. Unfortunately the execution suffers somewhat. The author seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of satire: “sometimes a subtle knife slit is more effective than a sledge hammer.” The humor in this book is anything but subtle, the jokes are too obvious and, most damning of all, a lot of it’s just not funny. I felt like half of the jokes either fell flat or were real groaners.

It’s difficult to sum up this book, because there’s not much of a plot. Instead there are a serious of “sketches”, almost as if the author were auditioning for Monty Python. Clearly the author must have asked himself, “What are all the comic possibilities about Sinclair being raised from the dead?” And then went with all of them.

For example, there’s a literary review of Sinclair’s latest book which claims, “Apparently being dead has done little for the artistry of Upton Sinclair.” There’s a description of a video game about resurrecting dead leftists from the grave. There’s a panel discussion featuring the various Sinclair assassins. There’s a Sinclair hotline in which people call up and report Sinclair sightings. et cetera.

The last 3rd of the book is a more traditional narrative, containing a story which brings together most of the themes of the book. I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but I’ll say I liked this part of the book the best.

As for the themes of the book: It has been said that a work of satire is a failure if it is possible to accurately summarize it into a few sentences. But then, the satire in this book isn't too deep.

Basically the themes, as I understand them, are that the left has run out of ideas, and is hanging onto outdated socialist doctrines from the last century--hence the need to keep resurrecting Sinclair’s body. The right has absolutely no ideas at all, and has simply made a career out of opposing the left, hence the various Sinclair assassins, and the cult like status they achieve among the right in this fictional world.

Whether either of these is true is questionable in my opinion. Certainly there's an element of truth is in both of them. Large parts of the Left do talk as if they still live in the 19th century. And Philip Gold, in his book “Take Back the Right,” admits that many conservatives, as a matter of principal, simply are against whatever liberals are for. Thus the right has ended up being on the wrong side of simple issues like environmentalism, feminism, equal rights, and other issues that, taken objectively, are really hard to argue against.

But as with any generalization, I think this is very fragile and could easily go the other way depending on which examples you pick. You could easily argue that the right is an anachronism, and the left has made a career out of simply being oppositional.

At any rate, I think Chris Bachelder has taken one or two satiric observations about modern politics, and stretched it too thin over a 300 page book. He keeps hitting the same jokes over and over again. This is true with his literary jokes as well, such as the running jokes that Sinclair uses too many exclamation points (which is obviously something only English professors care about) and that Sinclair always writes the same story.

All that being said: this wasn't the worst book I've ever read either. Moderately entertaining, parts of it sort of funny, and enough different scenarios and sketch situations at least to keep you from being bored. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give this a solid 5, maybe a 6.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Star Wars Holiday Special was a two-hour television special (including commercials) set in the Star Wars galaxy. It was broadcast one time only on Friday, November 17, 1978 on CBS-TV from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time (EST). In it, Chewbacca and Han Solo visit Kashyyyk, Chewbacca's home world, to celebrate Life Day.
The program also features some cameos (although the cameo actors are listed as stars) by other Star Wars characters, including Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader, and Princess Leia (who sings the film's "theme song", set to the music of John Williams' Star Wars theme, near the end). The program is probably best known for an animated cartoon produced by Toronto-based Nelvana that introduces, for the first official time in the Star Wars universe, the bounty hunter Boba Fett.

Link of the Day
So, the Synod is once again debating the question of women in office. I've enjoyed reading the bloggings of Mary Hulst, the first woman ordained in the CRC, about this issue. She's written several entries now: here, and here, and here and here.

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