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Another fine mess

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U.S.!: Songs and Stories - Chris Bachelder I'm terribly excited about Paul Thomas Anderson's forthcoming "There Will Be Blood," so I got tempted to go back and read some Upton Sinclair, but... well, I didn't think I really had it in me. He's the literary equivalent of castor oil. So I grabbed this as a substitute and, ah, man I dug this book. Sure, it remained a little too constricted by the generic conventions of the dead-Leftist-writer-resurrected-then-assassinated-repeatedly plot, but despite such shackles Bachelder zips and soars. The first two-thirds of the book is a "Resurrection Scrapbook," including some short narratives, a few songs, a couple jokes, a pastiche of Browning's "My Last Duchess," a page full of exclamation points, a syllabus for a class on creative writing Sinclair would teach (with some excellent jabs at grades as the "filthy lucre" of the academy). The last third is a longer, suspenseful narrative that to some degree pulls together the strands of hope and desperation and the symbolics of art, politics, and American know-nothing-ism the book's been riffing on...

And it all works: I read in a rush, with a rush. The book's as smart as it is fun.

Example: Sinclair apparently wrote jokes for cash early on in his career, a biographical detail that runs counter to intuition, given the couple novels I've read. But Bachelder shows off a signal accomplishment of his own novel here: on the one hand, it's a great joke itself, this humorless prig mechanically building his riddles from the punchline backward. Then CB makes a very fine point about how this method of craft probably came to bear on Sinclair's (mechanical) fictions, too. Even as he fizzes with pomo irony and pastiche, CB teases out a lovely lovely portrait of this man.

And he uses that portrait as an allegory for the collisions of politics and art throughout, the best joke nailing home this theme, as Upton Sinclair finds a magic lantern with a genie, who grants him three wishes. After using his first to escape a precarious situation, Sinclair then asks "that our cruel and greedy capitalist nation would transition peacefully into a just and cooperative Socialist state within one year's time." The genie balks, ranting about the impossibility of such a vision given the many, many conditions currently militating against such political change. After a long, funny paragraph, he finally yells that he's "not fucking Zeus" and Sinclair will have to come up with something else. So Sinclair sits for a while, then asks "sheepish[ly]" to "get just a couple good reviews on my next book." And the genie thinks for a while before responding, "would you settle for eighteen months on that Socialism deal?"

That joke nails it--the book is sympathetic but unidealistic yet wildly funny and wonderfully, sincerely concerned with the possibility of a political art. Whenever anyone casually dismisses postmodern, ironic fiction as empty and nihilistic and navel-gazing, use this as an antidote: smash the nitwit over the head with a copy. Or give it to 'em to read.