This year marks the 100th anniversary of the release of Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle. In 1906, his work of fiction won acclaim from critics and attention from politicians, creating a public uproar that led to legislated regulation of the meat-packing industry.
But Sinclair, despite having written more than 90 books on nearly every issue of social injustice, has left no legacy. Today, serious literary critics bash his work, and an political fiction writer is hard to find in America. What happened to fiction as a vehicle for leftist social movements? And, for that matter, what happened to the left?
These questions create the launching pad for Chris Bachelder's new novel U.S.!, a bizarre, satirical book that raises Sinclair from the dead and assassinates him repeatedly. Sinclair serves as a metaphor for the American left and as a literal representation of political engagement in fiction, both of which seem to lay dormant today.
"I'm resurrecting Sinclair, but I'm really resurrecting this [revolutionary] spirit that doesn't quite ever go away," says Bachelder, who's an assistant professor at Colorado College. "What's interesting is that fiction writers have ceased to operate in the same fashion."
Bachelder says that in these times, satirical writers face a particularly difficult challenge.
"In a way, it's increasingly difficult to satirize, because reality sort of is ridiculous on its own and doesn't require the imagination of the satirist to push it over the edge," he says. "It's getting harder to do, because you turn on your television, and it's going to be more ridiculous than you can invent."
While Bachelder says he's ambivalent about Sinclair and political art in general he goes so far as to affirm E.L. Doctorow's quote that "there's a death that creeps into your prose when you try to illustrate a principle, no matter how worthy" he does see a place for politics in prose.
"I'm not arguing for a return of that kind of propagandist fiction. But I don't think you need to concede the field of politics as a fiction writer to the people on Fox."
Sound confusing? You're getting the point. Bachelder describes U.S.! as a meta-political book about his own confusion. The book is in no way a manifesto, but more a contemplation. And he has no pipe dreams of actually resurrecting the left or political prose with satire. "If Jon Stewart can't do it, how can I?" he asks.
Ultimately, Bachelder may not change the world, but he may leave readers entertained and instilled with hope and questions.
"How do you engage with the world," he asks, "when it's clearly going downhill?" capsule
Chris Bachelder reading
CC's McHugh Commons, 1090 N. Cascade Ave.
Monday, April 17, 7 p.m.
Free; call 389-6607 for more information.