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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Chris Bachelder

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To purchase U.S.!

Title: U.S.!
Author: Chris Bachelder
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 302 pages
Availability: U.S.! - US
U.S.! - UK
U.S.! - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 19/8/2006 Jay Parini
The Independent . 30/8/2006 Jonathan Gibbs
Independent on Sunday . 20/8/2006 Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski
The LA Times . 28/2/2006 Rich Cohen
San Francisco Chronicle . 12/2/2006 Elizabeth Kiem
Sunday Telegraph . 27/8/2006 James Flint
The Village Voice . 17/2/2006 Pete L'Official

  Review Consensus:

  Funny, well done

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bachelder doesn't really know what to do with everything he has dug up here, but he has performed a small miracle of sorts, unearthing at least one shimmering truth: that we never learned as much as we might have from men like Sinclair. Needless to say, we need them now." - Jay Parini, The Guardian

  • "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." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "It's a well-meaning novel (.....) Yet the project very quickly starts to feel laboured, as if the author's locked himself on a course he can't deviate from." - Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski, Independent on Sunday

  • "In fact, my biggest qualm about U.S.! is that the most vivid moments (...) are not allowed to linger. It's as if Bachelder doesn't trust us, like the kid at the movies who keeps poking you in the ribs and reminding you that it's all a joke and that none of it matters because the universe is so big and you are so small. (...) As in the most acute satire, all this comes off as entirely believable, so much so that when you put the book down it's the real world that feels like farce. Passing through Bachelder's consciousness, you see, as if for the first time, how strange life in America really is -- how unreal its characters, its plot lines, its dramas." - Rich Cohen, The Los Angeles Times

  • "U.S.! is less a novel than a bag of tricks. It chronicles the waning spirit of political engagement in fiction and the rise of ambivalence and cynicism. The first half of the book is an inventive collection of Sinclair ephemera (.....) All of these elements are masterfully conceived, full of inside and outside jokes." - Elizabeth Kiem, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(S)trange and somewhat wonderful" - James Flint, Sunday Telegraph

  • "A righteously absurd, corporeal allegory for the demise of the radical Left in America and a meditation on the efficacy of the political novel, Bachelder's vicious cycle of afterlife and death is also malevolently funny. For its first half, U.S.! reads less as novel than as thoroughly modern miscellany. (...) Part of the enjoyment of reading U.S.! comes (...) also from Bachelder's palpable ambivalence about old Upton and the fate of political fiction. Is this decomposing cipher a pamphleteer or a prophet, a talentless hack or a tragic hero ? (Survey says: all of the above.) And, implicitly: Is the book in your hands even worth writing anymore ?" - Pete L'Official, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Chris Bachelder's U.S.! has a sci-fi premise: as if Upton Sinclair didn't live long enough the first time around (he died in 1968, at ninety) -- and as if he didn't write enough long, long books (he wrote close to a hundred, and Bachelder attributes a plausible 8000 words-a-day habit to him) -- in this novel he is resurrected. Repeatedly. And he's always ready to continue spreading the socialist word (as well as voice his support for quite a few other causes), and to churn out evermore books (each with a message).
       Bachelder's United States of the past four decades or so resembles the actual one, but the Sinclair-factor means it's a bit different. At the centre of the novel there are two camps, of good and evil: those helping Sinclair each time he rises from the dead (there's a long waiting list to be his secretary) and those opposed to him. Assassinating Sinclair (or trying to) is popular sport: not only is there a cottage industry of assassins, but also of authors who write about the assassins (the most successful of whom are folk heroes, with several kills to their name).
       Sinclair is sincere and obsessed, and continues to be baffled by the fact that America continues headlong down the wrong path. He tries his best to show Americans the errors of their ways, resigned to getting killed for his troubles. His worker-friendly socialism has only a small cult following -- as do his books, which are generally acknowledged to be overlong and not very good.
       Bachelder presents his novel in three parts, and the first, taking up some two-thirds of the book, is by far the most entertaining. In short chapters Bachelder offers glimpses of this Sinclair-killing dystopia, playing the joke for all it is worth (and he mines surprisingly much out of it). Even with the obvious he has a nice touch, as when Sinclair complains

"These resurrections are killing." He coughed again, clearing his throat. "It's not easy coming back. Not at my age."
       From a "U.S tip line" (where you can call to report Sinclair-sightings) to the Museum of Upton Sinclair Assassination to a review of one of his new books (Pharmaceutical !) to the syllabus for a creative writing class Sinclair teaches ("English 684 !" -- where students are expected to write and self-publish four novels over the course of the semester) Bachelder comes up with some great stuff, and presents it very amusingly. There are also a variety of episodes from Sinclair's resurrected lives (generally on the run) and his attempts at being relevant.
       Sinclair is an almost perfect timeless figure because he is not in the least bit attuned to the times. Part of his problem is that he was practically never relevant. As even a character relatively sympathetic to Sinclair tells him:
"You misjudged everything. That's what you are, a misjudger. An epic American misjudger with a bad ear for dialogue and an exclamation point problem. You've misjudged an entire century. {...} Your record is spotless. You've not gotten one thing right. You were a prohibitionist for God's sake. Socialism, telepathy, fasting, the metric system. Your books don't make your wishes come true."
       One of the issues the book does address is the question of whether writers matter -- though Bachelder tries to have it both ways. Sinclair is constantly ridiculed as a terrible writer, with only a tiny fan base. He is unread and hence presumably irrelevant -- yet he is also very publicly reviled, the hatred very deep-seated, as if he posed a real threat to the American way of life. Assassinating Sinclair has become something that is considered necessary, vital to the public interest -- which is, of course, the ultimate tribute one can pay to a writer. Yet Sinclair -- even the Sinclair of these pages -- hardly needs to be silenced. Yes, he churns out books faster than most people could read them (if they were so inclined), but he's also writing into a vacuum: it's little more than meaningless babble for all the effect it has.
       The inventive variations of the first part of the novel then give way to a more extended straightforward narrative in the second, "The Greenville Anti-Socialist League Fourth of July Book Burning". The book comes together more here, but while competently done it's not quite as much fun any longer. As straightforward narrative this section suggests a more direct payoff, but it doesn't quite achieve that. Ultimately, Bachelder doesn't know quite enough what to do with the problem of engaged literature (especially of the poorly-written sort) -- and he doesn't seem to be willing to fully embrace the medium either: his jokes are funny, but they don't resonate any deeper.
       U.S.! is very funny, and there's a good deal of great invention in it, but in choosing an author who was -- despite considerable renown and one very significant work (The Jungle) -- a failure in almost every respect (a not very good writer, and a supporter of largely doomed causes (and whose support did practically nothing for those causes)) Bachelder reinforces the notion of art as insignificant and useful mainly for entertainment purposes. He does entertain -- very well, for long stretches -- but the serious material (both Sinclair's causes and the assassination-cult) doesn't always sit comfortably with the satire. Enjoyable, but not entirely satisfying.

       Note: We did very much enjoy the concept of:
the now widely used unit of measurement called a Sinclair. The Sinclair is a unit of hysteria equal to 2.92 exclamation points per page.
       The inventor considers the threshold for someone to be considered a 'dangerous person' about 0.7 Sinclairs -- "'Anything above that,' Pendleton said, 'sends up the red flag.'"
       We naturally assume that this is a not-so-subtle dig at that modern Sinclair, Tom Wolfe -- another writer of bad, exclamation-filled books -- and also a man with a message (albeit a very different one from Sinclair), who will suffer exactly the same fate as Sinclair, i.e. be well-remembered for having written something important way back when, as well as then having written way too many terrible and overlong works of fiction.

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U.S.!: Reviews: Upton Sinclair: Chris Bachelder: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Chris Bachelder teaches at Colorado College.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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