Bear v. Shark

Bear v. SharkChris Bachelder (MFA, 2002)

Scribner, 2001
ISBN: 0743219465

In this brilliant satire of our media-saturated culture, the sovereign nation of Las Vegas – the entertainment capital of the world – is host to Bear v. Shark II. After a disappointing loss in the first matchup between the land and the sea, the bear is back with a vengeance and out for blood. All of America is obsessed with the upcoming spectacle, so tickets are hard to come by. 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. The Normans load up their SUV and embark on a road trip to Vegas.

As they head cross-country, the family is besieged by a dizzying barrage of voices: television and radio personalities, public service announcements, bear and shark pundits, Freudians, theologians, and self-published authors, in addition to the Bear v. Shark fanatics, cultists, and resisters they meet at roadside gas stations and restaurants. Overwhelmed by factoids, statistics, and ten-second debates, the Normans – along with the rest of country – can’t seem to get their facts straight, much less figure out a way to actually communicate with one another. Sound bites and verbal tics predominate; misheard, misunderstood, and just plain mistaken information is absorbed, mangled, and regurgitated to hilarious effect; and the most inane subjects – from the disappearance of Dutch culture to the Shakespearean bias toward the bear – are vigorously and obsessively debated. These meaningless exchanges of misinformation leave Mr. Norman disenchanted, world-weary, and ambivalent about the impending show, but the family eventually makes it to Vegas for an apocalyptic and surprisingly emotional ending.

Written in quick, commercial-like segments that mirror the media it satirizes, Chris Bachelder’s debut is a fiercely funny, razor-sharp novel about the odd intersection of zealotry and trivia, about the barriers to human connection in a society that values entertainment above all else. Through a clever act of novelistic subterfuge, Bachelder makes us laugh at our penchant for absurd and useless information while drawing us into a dazzling spectacle of his own imagination.