October 31, 2002

Bear v. Shark

Print More

Criticizing pop culture can be a tricky thing. When it’s well done, it can be exciting and vastly entertaining (think: Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club). When it’s done poorly, it’s as banal and tedious as any fiction can get (think: Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke).

Young author Chris Bachelder seems almost painfully aware of this and as a result pulled out all the stops for his first novel. He also pulled out things like conjunctions, transitory sentences, and other syntaxical elements that would typically make for a linear form of storytelling.

The result was Bear v. Shark, the literary equivalent of a Rorschack ink-blot test. Upon reading one of the short (typically one to two page) chapters, it’s not immediately clear what the reader is to make of what’s just been read. All the same, it’s interesting and compelling. Who can read a chapter about a sexy lawyer cross examining a pornographic, creamy, fat-free chocolate cake and not feel utterly intrigued?

Reading this novel is not unlike zipping through 100 cable television channels or clicking one’s way through thousands of online pop-up advertisements. Images come from nowhere, motifs work their way in and out of the prose, and each twist is as unexpected as the last. Think Tom Robbins without all the gushy sentiment, or Kurt Vonnegut without the psychology.

The plot revolves around one rather odd question: “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 in a fight between a bear and a shark?”

But don’t get Bachelder wrong, he’s not being entirely metaphorical here. In Bear v. Shark, Bachelder presents a society that’s remarkably similar to our own, a society in which people are so distant from one another that a father can’t even admit to himself that he loves his children.

Ultimately, though, Bear v. Shark is the story of Norman family. In the first pages of the novel we meet Mr. and Mrs. Norman and their two children Matthew and Curtis. Like any other American family, the Norman’s are avidly awaiting the second meeting of Bear and Shark. The first such contest, an event not unlike the Superbowl, resulted in a crushing loss for Bear. And, though the opponents aren’t even real animals (Both Bear and Shark are computer animated to look “more real than real”), the event draws thousands upon thousands of spectators to the sovereign nation of Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world.

It isn’t until young Curtis Norman wins a Bear v. Shark essay contest that the Normans get the chance to attend Bear v. Shark II in person. With four tickets in hand, the family heads to Las Vegas in their SUV. Along the way, the Normans are assaulted by radio commentators, advertisements, television shows, theologians, psychologists, strange restaurant patrons, and self promoting authors.

Information and misinformation abound as the Normans are privy to conversations about the loss of Dutch culture and debates about which of the three major weather channels is the most definitive and comprehensive. News channels promise all the up to date weather, news, sports, and features in four minutes flat because they “know you live a busy, hectic life.” Breakfast cereals offer 75% of your daily nougat and 100% of your daily fun. The children are passively violent, and the adults violently passive — looking up at a cloud in the sky, Curtis says, “That one looks like a derringer” to which his brother replies, “It looks more like a battle ax to me.”

Upon reaching Vegas, the Normans are stormed by Bear v. Shark paraphernalia — commemorative clothing items, keychains, trinkets, posters, flags. In short, it’s not an event vastly different from our own mega-super-industrial sporting events. And, as a side note, Bachelder’s Las Vegas is, frighteningly, not that different from our own. Neon. Booze. Women. Money. (Stacks of it) and plenty of good old fashioned violence (all in good fun, of course). These are the things Bachelder’s characters lust after.

Bear v. Shark is social satire of the highest order. For a new author like Bachelder, his ruminations are surprisingly astute and his tongue unnaturally sharp. But a word of caution: Be prepared to feel guilty the next time you go online, watch TV, turn on the radio, etc.

Archived article by Nate Brown