“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?”