Book Review: Bear v. Shark by Chris Bachelder

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4.5/5 Stars.

“Everything will be fine. In Las Vegas, everything will be made right. The spectacle transforms, it redeems.”

Bear v. Shark is 2016 National Book Award-nominee Chris Bachelder’s debut novel, and it is a real trip, let me tell you. An exercise in postmodernism, it draws clear parallels to Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Frederick Barthelme and the other big names in this literary genre.

The story revolves around one central question: who would win in a fight, a bear or a shark? In Bachelder’s extreme version of America—an America in which people are enslaved by their desire for mindless amusement and entertainment— there’s a large corporation that has managed to monetize the obsession with this question by pitting these two animals against each other at an annual event in Las Vegas. The spectacle captivates the nation, driving people into a frenzy.

This year, young Curtis Norman is the lucky winner of the Bear v. Shark essay contest, and has secured he and his family seats to the coveted event. The Normans set out on a road trip to Las Vegas that’s every bit as bizarre as anything you’ve ever read. The central character here is actually Larry Norman, Curtis’s father, who is determined to do right by his family, yet secretly yearns for a more meaningful life.

A razor sharp satire about America’s media-saturated culture, Bear v. Shark is so stylistically distinct that it took some getting used to. But once I became familiar with Bachelder’s (purposefully) jumbled narration—a barrage of TV and radio personalities, Bear v. Shark theorists, commercials, Bear v. Shark essays, and of course the traditional narrative following the Norman’s journey—I couldn’t get enough.

David Foster Wallace famously bemoaned some of the tenets of postmodernism, and in doing so used the genre to transcend irony and cynicism and return to a place of deep emotion and sentimentality. It seems that Bachelder had this in mind when he wrote Bear v. Shark. At the heart of his satire lies not disdain and mockery, but genuine sadness and empathy.

“Aren’t satirists just sentimental and oversensitive cranks who just wish the world were a kinder place and furthermore sort of believe that it could be a kinder place and it is therefore tragic that it’s such a cruel and stupid place?” 

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Book Review: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelor

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4.5/5 Stars.

This book is really something special. Truly one of the most amusing, entertaining and enjoyable books I’ve recently read. Don’t be discouraged by the plot description—there’s so much more to it than football, though the subject matter provides a fitting gateway into middle-aged manhood.

Every November, a group of 22 men gather at a 2-star suburban hotel to reenact “the most shocking play in NFL history,” a 1985 play dubbed the Throwback Special during which Redskins’ Joe Theismann suffered a career-ending leg injury. The book chronicles the men’s latest weekend retreat.

With 22 characters, no one is distinct. You won’t be able to remember what distinguishes Robert from Jeff or Carl from Trent or George from Andy. But that’s okay, and it’s sort of the point. This isn’t a book about individual characters, this is about the modern male psyche—together they make up a collective male conscious bumbling through the mundanity and terror of middle age.

Amusingly, every interaction has the weight of an existential crisis, from Peter meticulously boiling a mouthguard to Nate confessing that he has a bizarre sexual obsession with the illustrated women in children’s books. When the time comes for the men to gather and pick their players, it’s more than just a simple choice, it’s a reflection of their inner selves. Bachelder presents this all with stunning psychological and philosophical insight that never feels overwrought.

It’s unclear how the men know each other or how the tradition began, but they are united in their dependence on it. They take comfort in the routine, in the certainty of the predetermined outcome—an anchor to some semblance of serenity and stability amid their ever-changing lives.

Bachelder, brilliantly, reveals to us the absurdity of his characters while treating them with genuine love, dignity and empathy. It’s the laugh-out-loud kind of humor and commentary designed to comfort those of us who are intimately familiar with pervasive melancholy, existential anxiety and consuming self-consciousness. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. I laughed with these 22 men throughout the duration of their beloved weekend, not at them.