In Chris Bachelder's witty and scathing first novel BEAR V. SHARK, there is a small chapter about old televisions and, specifically, remotes, clickers. He writes, "The clicker, Roger, is a thing of the past, just like the waffle iron and the novel." I wonder if Bachelder believes it, because his novel is not your normal narrative, Bachelder not your normal novelist. Bachelder, an Alumni Graduate Fellow in the MFA program at the University of Florida, must have watched oodles of television and read reams of tabloids before and during his writing of his comic novel.
The story is this: "Given a relatively level playing field --- i.e., water deep enough so that a Shark could maneuver proficiently, but shallow enough so that a Bear could stand and operate with its characteristic dexterity --- who would win a fight between a Bear and a Shark?" That is the media spectacle. That is what the world wants to know. The upcoming rematch (the Bear lost in Bear V. Shark I) and everything that attaches itself to the periphery of this spectacle --- like the Normans for instance --- that is what is on every television set, in every newspaper, in every fast food kids meal.
With an essay entitled "Bear v. Shark: A Reason to Live," young Curtis Norman wins a national writing contest and four tickets to the event (something to die for), and his family is traveling to the sovereign nation of Las Vegas to partake in the event. Everywhere they go there's some opinion on who will win. "Bear!" "Shark!"
The novel, written in quick bits, short commercials, segues, vignettes, is sharp and fierce. How much information is too much information? When does entertainment stop entertaining? How big can a spectacle be before it begins to deflate? Why do we care so much about the most insignificant happenings in the world? Does it make our day that much better knowing that Bea Arthur is trying to get on another sitcom? Are we better people after watching "E!"? Are we more whole knowing that The Rock is going to get his revenge in the WWF ring? Sylvester Stallone. Halle Barry. Whitney Houston. Gary Coleman. Justine Bateman. Gary Busey. William Shatner. Do their personal lives really matter to us? Why do we care? When did it get like this, where our world is one gigantic billboard, one big message selling us something, showing us pretty pictures or something titillating while we eat our morning scones?
That's what Bachelder does for us --- holds up a mirror, and all the garishness comes smack back in our faces.
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley on January 21, 2011
Bear V. Shark