Saturday, July 21, 2007

What I'm Reading: U.S. by Chris Bachelder

Imagine if Upton Sinclair, the great Socialist novelist, author of The Jungle and 1934 Democratic candidate for Governor of California, were brought back to life today to comment on the modern world of strip malls, drug companies and high school wrestling. And then imagine if he were assassinated. And then imagine if he were brought back to life again, and then assassinated again, and then brought back to life…

OK. It’s not the most obvious premise for a novel.

But with U.S., Chris Bachelder makes it work. More than work: It’s hard to think of a better political novel from the past few years.

Without ever quite spelling it out, Bachelder has written a parable for the relationship of the Left with its heroic past. Like any inspired conceit, the revived Sinclair takes on a life of his own, functioning both as allegory and as plot driver. It’s easy to read through the book (as I do here) in terms of what it says about the American left, but it reads (like Sinclair’s books were supposed to, whether or not they ever did) just as much as a page-turning adventure story.

What do we want from our political forebears, anyway? Bachelder’s Sinclair is the cheerful, literal-minded, slightly unworldly, tireless, humor-impaired, good-natured, occasionally infuriating older activist all of us involved in left politics have crossed paths with. He has all the virtues of the ‘30s; he carries an aura of heroism with him along with dirt of the grave. And come on, if you’re reading this, I know you’ve felt that’s exactly what’s missing from your life.

The book has all the postmodern devices, first-person narrative interspersed with imagined reviews of imagined Sinclair novels, transcripts, letters, and EBay listings. But I tend to think the book owes more to the USA trilogy than to David Foster Wallace. And anyway, whatever postmodern elements it incorporates, it’s quite free of postmodern irony. Sinclair’s appeals for Socialism may be stilted, old-fashioned, unconvincing: well, that strand of politics hasn’t left much of a usable legacy: but Bachelder doesn’t leave much doubt that, as far he’s concerned, it’s still right.

Years ago Scott McLemee wrote a short affectionate piece in In These Times (I can’t find it online) about his own relationship with past Lefts, specifically his time as Trotskyist. He quoted some anti-Reagan slogan – “Resist Reagan, the servant of the bourgeoisie and the figurehead for imperialism” or something like that – and commented that while there were plenty of more interesting or elegant or appealing things to say about Reagan, wasn’t that slogan at least as true as any of them. That’s the spirit of U.S. right there.


Ryan said...

Intriguing. I will try to check it out.

Keep on blogging.

LP said...

Eek! A comment already! On my second post....