A SOLDIER UPON
A HARD CAMPAIGN

OR, THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF
PASSION OF THE CHRIST JEWELRY

by Chris Bachelder

That is a question that you struggle with every day.
It’s an infernal question—the degree of engagement. (See Table 1)

—E. L. Doctorow, 1982 interview

TABLE 1

AN INDEX OF SOCIOPOLITICAL ENGAGEMENT:
UPTON SINCLAIR’S ASTONISHING DEPLOYMENT
OF EXCLAMATION POINTS IN OIL! (1927)
With attendant thoughts on the viability of satire as a mode of sociopolitically committed writing, given, among other things, The Passion of the Christ jewelry (www.sharethepassionofthechrist.com)[a]

Number of pages in Oil![b] 527[c]
Number of exclamation points (excluding title) 1,539[d]
Percentage of pages with at least one exclamation point 84.6[e]
Average number of exclamation points per page 2.92[f]
Most consecutive pages with at least one exclamation point 97[g]
Most consecutive pages without an exclamation point 4[h]
Number of pages with five or more exclamation points 114[i]
Number of pages with ten or more exclamation points 16[j]
Most exclamation points on any one single page 22[k]
Number of exclamation points in final chapter 162[l]
Number of exclamation points editor William Maxwell advised a writer to use per career 2[m]

  1. “The website of official licensed products for Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. Our mission is to reach the world with the message of hope by creating jewelry and gifts of exceptional quality, which will inspire people to express and share their faith.” I’m partial to The Passion Nail™, a 7/8” sterling silver nail pendant on an 18” sterling silver chain. For fifty bucks, it’s a design that “provides a unique and powerful way to express and share your faith.” If that kind of unique and powerful faith is a little out of your price range, there’s always the lead-free pewter Passion Nail™, still handsome and pious, but much cheaper. If I were making this up, it would be pretty decent satire. But I’m not making it up. We are living in what is widely regarded to be a golden age for satire. People are always saying to me, “You’ve got to love living in America. We’ve got midget dating shows, we’ve got calf muscle augmentation surgery, we’ve got Bob fucking Dylan hawking Wonderbras. There’s so much material! There’s so much to make fun of!” But we are actually living in an age when satire is increasingly untenable because satire relies on clear distinctions between real and absurd, and between core and surface, and those are not distinctions we can easily make anymore. It is difficult (and hardly worth the effort) to make fun of something that is already a completed joke. The culture now does the work of the satirist. The satirist’s job is typically to sit, vulture-like, at the end of the cultural assembly line, then to seize the finished products and give them anywhere from half a turn to three full turns toward absurdity in order to show the underlying lunacy, violence, inequality, or inhumanity. But when the material coming off the line is already ridiculous and seemingly self-mocking, then there’s clearly no work left for the satirist to do. An absurd culture renders absurdists obsolete. I recently read about a small town in the Midwest that passed a statute requiring all citizens to own a gun. Again, as a satirist it’s my job to invent that American town as a farcical and illogical extension of America’s violent, gun-loving character. Satirists typically make illogical leaps in logical directions. But everyday reality leaps as far and as illogically as the best fabulist. So once I read about compulsory gun-ownership in this dusty American hamlet, what can I do with it? I can’t top it, can’t tweak it to make it funny or outlandish. All I can do is shake my head, point at it, and say, “Look.” All I can do is say, “You win, America. You win.” All I can do is clean out my locker and turn in my apron and name tag. In 1960, decades before D.C. snipers and low-carb beer, Philip Roth said in an interview: “The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

    [!]

  2. I’m referring to this copy of Oil! I got out of my college’s library, a battered old third edition published in 1928 by T. Werner Laurie, Ltd., of London, and bequeathed to the college by a Dr. Henry M. Roberts, who signed the book “H. M. Roberts March 1–28. Vienna.” It’s a wonderful edition. In the back there are advertisements for other Laurie editions, including those in its Two-Shilling Library and its Library of Sex Education. The latter series features such titles as Sterile Marriages, The Great Unmarried, Painless Childbirth in Twilight Sleep, and Woman’s Wild Oats (“A bold, vigorous, and arresting book on women’s problems and the relations of the sexes, which has caused fierce controversy”). In the front of the book is Sinclair’s entry in Who’s Who (under Recreations, Sinclair includes just two: tennis and Socialist propaganda). This is all very endearing in the way that old books can be. The college bookplate has a quote from Milton: “A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Now is probably a good time to tell you that my novel, a satire first published late in 2001, has faded quietly out of print after a pretty modest circulation run and disappointing sales here in the USA.

    [!]

  3. Sinclair wrote a lot of books (close to eighty) and many of them were big books. He couldn’t help it. In his autobiography, he says of one project: “It was turning out to be longer than I had planned—something that has frequently happened to my books.” FYI: Seventeen books between 1934 and 1940. After the publication of The Jungle in 1906, Sinclair wrote, “I have become a soldier upon a hard campaign—I am thinking only of the enemy.” Exclamation points as ammunition. A poetics of class war.

    [!]
  4. I know because I counted them. It took me a while. I suppose I could have made an error. Chances are, I missed a few exclamation points. But let’s say I overcounted by ten or fifty or one hundred or five hundred or seven hundred and fifty—that’s still a lot of exclamation points. Upton was fired up about socialism and injustice. Think of his exclamation points as sincere and passionate expressions of his political conviction. In contemporary fiction the exclamation point is used sparingly and, of course, ironically. By the way, here’s what 1,539 exclamation points looks like:

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    [!]

  5. 446 pages out of 527 have at least one exclamation point. Sinclair: “The proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose; he thinks no more of ‘art for art’s sake’ than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin; he thinks of getting ashore—and then there will be time enough for art.” I admit I’m stirred by this kind of overblown, radical rhetoric, but I know it’s misleading. Sinclair’s analogy, while hastily sketching out the aesthetic field (Dilettantes v. Revolutionaries), in fact establishes a false dichotomy between Beauty and Conviction. Tell me that The Grapes of Wrath is not both politically motivated and well-painted. Beauty without Conviction is a beer commercial; Conviction without Beauty is a pamphlet. Sinclair was not a great writer (and often he was a pamphleteer), but he was part of a great and important American tradition. As many have pointed out, this tradition seems to be dying out. In interviews throughout the years, E. L. Doctorow has called contemporary American writers somnambulists, technically skilled miniaturists, and novelists for the Republican party. He does this somehow without seeming mean or nasty or morally superior. He doesn’t name names. He just says what Barbara Kingsolver says in her forceful essay “Jabberwocky”: that in general, Americans are shy about mixing their art with politics. We’ve turned inward: into the suburbs, into the house, into the mind. The canvas has gotten small. We still of course have a few straight-up political writers (Doctorow being the absolute best, in my opinion, because, among other things, he knows the history and discourse and contributions of the radical Left, as opposed to the liberal Left), but by and large it seems that we have done little to expand and develop this tradition. (Let’s please not get into the business about how every novel is political, which is true but not interesting. Infidelity and slanting afternoon light in autumn are political, but not in the way that The Book of Daniel or Beloved or Reservation Blues is political. This is a distinction we can make.)

    Many of us have gathered in the cul de sac of satire. We’ve gotten pretty good at it. Unfortunately, satire seems less and less viable and powerful, and our decades-long immersion in irony has made conviction alien and meaning slippery. There is a kind of satire that seems to be making fun of everything and standing for nothing. In this way it can seem adolescent and moralistic and overly simplistic (not unlike the political novels of the 1920s and ’30s). I guess one of the things I’m arguing here is that in wanting to engage the world but in reacting against the sincere, naïve, programmatic Novel of Exclamation Points, today’s satirists in fact often end up writing Novels of Wry Gags that are just as superficial, tendentious, and programmatic as a Sinclair novel. We’re no doubt funnier than the muckrakers. We’re more laid-back and resigned to global capitalism. For exclamation points substitute winks. We’re less politically astute and more comically and culturally astute. Despite a 180-degree tonal shift (and with notable exceptions), we really haven’t moved the political novel forward. The beginning of The Jungle is really good (remember? It’s the wedding party—a truly jubilant scene despite the fact (or perhaps because) the participants cannot afford it). The end of The Jungle (the socialist pamphlet part) is almost unreadably bad. It can certainly make you want to flee. But the danger is fleeing from one dead end to another dead end. Doctorow again, speaking of the politically sentimental writers of his childhood: “When it’s all toted up, it may turn out that we’ve written as badly in our time as they did in theirs.”

    [!]

  6. Just so it’s clear, I want to point out that while many of these exclamation points in Oil! occur in dialogue, many do not. Some are used in a tight third-person point of view to suggest the thoughts or strong feelings of a character or characters: “They filled their bags, and then they tramped back to camp, tired and hungry—oh gosh!” Others just seem to belong to our excitable narrator/author: “Bunny ran out and shouted to Dad, and leaped into the car, and gosh-amighty, the way they did burn up that road across the desert!”

    [!]

  7. Gosh-amighty, with some of these numbers, jut like Cy Young’s 511 victories or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, it’s just hard to imagine anyone coming along and besting them.

  8. [!]

  9. My wife was recently reading Virginia Woolf’s writing journal at night in bed (because that’s the kind of lady she is). She (my wife) knows that no matter what I say or how intently I study the back cover or how interestedly I flip through its pages, even if I live fifty more years I am unlikely ever to read the writing journals of Virginia Woolf. So what she did was when she read something that she thought I might need to hear, she would say, “Hmm,” several times if necessary, and then when I finally would stop reading my book (let’s say it was DeLillo) and say, “What?” then she would read me the passage out loud. One night she read the following entry (without a trace of incrimination): “Ideas that struck me. That the more complex a vision the less it lends itself to satire: the more understandable the less it is able to sum up and make linear. For example: Shakespeare and Dostoeyevsky, neither of them satirise.” Shakespeare and Dostoeyevsky! I did not say that I wasn’t trying to be Shakespeare, I was just trying to get a piece on a humor website. I didn’t say anything. What could I say to these serious ladies? We all lay quietly in bed together—me, my wife, and Virginia Woolf. Virginia’s tossed-off eloquence hung in the air above the bed like a weather system. Finally I said, “Ideas that struck me. People falling down stairs is funny across all times and cultures.” My wife and Virginia exchanged a meaningful look and then turned back to each other without saying anything. I glanced furtively at the page number, which I committed to memory. The passage begins on 238 and extends to 239.

    [!]

  10. Back to Dylan and Victoria’s Secret for just a minute. I’ve heard people say, “Come on, what’s the big deal?” I’d like to be one of these people. They seem laid-back and well-adjusted and pragmatic. But I’m afraid I come down on the other side, the side with the hysterical people who say that it is a big deal. One reason it’s a big deal is the very obvious point that you compromise yourself as an artist when you associate your art with a product (my god, and especially the products of Victoria’s Secret). This seemed like a clear and simple point about fifteen years ago—remember how shocked and disgusted we were when a band sold a song to a car company?—but it’s amazing how quickly it’s become not a big deal and how people who say it is a big deal are seen as hysterical and completely out of touch. I don’t think our shock and disgust back in the day were wrong. But the conversation has shifted from integrity (selling out) to savvy (playing the game well). And another reason it’s a big deal is because it’s another sledgehammer blow to the very concept of absurdity. I mean, if I were part of a comedy troupe in, say, 1985, I might have noted the disturbing trend of musicians selling their songs to corporations and I might have suggested that we do a ludicrous skit about Bob Dylan in the year 2000, old and gray and strumming his guitar in a panties commercial. And now this is what culture actually tosses up. In the first draft of my out-of-print satirical novel, I made up this crazy kind of television with all kinds of crazy and frightening features. My editors wrote back and said, Look, there are televisions that already do those things. You’re going to have to push that a bit further. I didn’t know. I just had this crappy 13” with a broken remote.

    [!]

  11. Fitzgerald once said that using an exclamation point was like laughing at your own joke. But for Upton, who was never much of a comic writer, using exclamation points was more like saying “Amen” to your own sermon. That’s a problem, I know. Tradition tells us that “The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery” (Bacon), that “An artist never desires to prove anything” (Wilde), that “A writer’s politics are more dangerous to him than his cupidity” (Auden). This is Mystic-in-a-Garret talk and it drives me nuts, despite its grains of truth. The great thing about Doctorow is that he is fully aware of the dangers of committed writing (“There is a kind of death that creeps into your prose when you’re trying to illustrate a principle, no matter how worthy.”) and yet he bemoans the fact that many American writers have turned their backs on the world and focused their attention on what happens in the bedroom and the kitchen. In a 1982 interview, he said that our national emergency called for a poetics of engagement. He thought we were on the verge of developing one. I imagine he’s still waiting for it. Doctorow, I think it’s safe to say, takes as axiomatic that 1) the world is crappy (not existentially, but sociopolitically; i.e. crappy in ways that humans might mitigate); and 2a) that one of the important functions of art is to address this crappiness because 2b) art (Beauty!) can be persuasive in a way that a CNN banner cannot and, maybe, 2c) do you really want to be painting a pretty watercolor in your cabin while the ship is going down? So then the question becomes well how do you do this—make fully engaged art, that is—without being sentimental, didactic, smug, glib, moralistic, naïve, or seemingly ignorant of the wonderful/awful ambiguities of human life on Earth? That’s a question like how do you create a just and decent society. It’s a bastard, but it’s too important not to think about.

    [!]

  12. It’s page 509 in my old edition. Here’s an excerpt:

    “They’re raiding them!” cried Bunny, and would have run to the scene; but Rachel’s arms were flung about him, pinning him to his seat. “No! No! Sit still! What can you do?”

    “My God! We must do something!”

    “You’re not armed, and you can’t stop a mob! You can only get killed! Keep still!”

    A poetics of engagement, see, needs to be worked out, created, re-created, developed, corrected, refined. It’s a collective and ongoing deal. It’s messy, as you can see. All of Sinclair’s exclaiming was an attempt to engage the world. Crude, perhaps. Oversimplistic. It’s easy to scoff at the old muckraker now. We’re great scoffers. In fact, scoffing is our greatest contribution to the poetics of engagement. Scoffing might be our legacy, and it’s really not that great of a legacy. Doctorow says that the failure of political fiction is a failure of diction. “What very often happens is that the novelist or poet assumes the diction of politics, which, by its very nature, tends to be incapable of illumination. If you use political diction, you’re not reformulating anything. You’re telling people what they already know. Your rationale is your own language, and the danger of explicit politics in a book is in giving that up.” Might it be possible to substitute, in the foregoing passage, satirical diction for political diction, while retaining the overall meaning?

    [!]

  13. Well and it’s only a thirty-page chapter, so he really reached back for something extra at the end.

    [!]

  14. In a two-week span this spring, about twenty people emailed me this link. It’s a link for the Discovery Channel’s program called Animal Face-Off. I have not seen the show, but the gist of it is that each week the show pits two animals against each other in a hypothetical duel. Here is the list of shows:

    • Lion v. Tiger
    • Elephant v. Rhino
    • Croc v. Great White
    • Hippo v. Bull Shark
    • Tiger v. Grizzly
    • Wolf v. Cougar
    • Polar Bear v. Walrus
    • Lion v. Crocodile
    • Gorilla v. Leopard
    • Anaconda v. Jaguar
    • Alligator v. Bear
    • Colossal Squid v. Sperm Whale

    OK, and so they have a bunch of experts on the show to talk about who they think would win in this fight. And I guess at the end of the show they create a computer-simulated fight between the two animals and show you who would win. The reason that all these friends, family members, former students, and complete strangers sent me this link is because my satirical novel, Bear v. Shark, is (was?) about a computer-simulated duel (in Las Vegas, in the Darwin Dome) between a bear and a shark, that captivates two nations (Las Vegas has seceded to form its own country) and creates a media circus and a frenzy of expert testimony (while drawing attention away from the animals qua real animals, not to mention more pressing national matters such as poverty and war, etc.). I found it poignant that Animal Face-Off was airing just as Bear v. Shark was sliding quietly out of print. It seemed to mean something, but I wasn’t sure what. I suppose I couldn’t figure out if the TV show made the book more or less urgent and necessary. Probably less, I decided. The lag time between absurdist, futuristic satire and American reality was something like two years in this case. The sympathetic email messages that people sent along with the link usually said one of two things: either “You’re getting ripped off!” or “You predicted the future!” As to the former, I doubt it, and even if it were true, if my absurd premise could be ripped off that quickly, it must not be much of an absurd premise. As to the latter comment—my prescience—I didn’t have the heart to write back and explain that predicting the future is not really the function of satire, and certainly not the measure of its success. Moreover, if I’m going to be a seer or visionary, I’d like to see decades hence (like Jules Verne or H. G. Wells) and not into the middle of next week. Don’t get me wrong, I think my out-of-print novel has some funny jokes in it and I wish it were still in print. I wish it were, as Milton put it, “embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” But I see now that it is not a foundational work in the construction of an American poetics of engagement. It seems, in fact, as disposable and ephemeral as the popular culture it derides. As Animal Face-Off. Recently, a first-time novelist and admirer of Bear v. Shark sent me a galley of his novel to blurb if I felt so moved. The novel is about a reality-TV show that culminates in the deflowering of a virgin. It’s a good first novel and I was happy to lend a few words of praise, but I can’t help wondering if that TV show isn’t currently in the works on some cable outfit. The satirical novel, which takes years to write and then publish, is perhaps not the best mode to address the ephemeral lunacies of popular culture. I’m not ready to say that satire and/or irony have been rendered inert, but I’m saying our rhetorical modes need to get somehow more complicated. They need a big shove. We need to find out if they are capable of doing more. I would never write any of this in 11-point font because it sounds so tendentious. My own solution: I’ve written a novel about Upton Sinclair and the crumbling empire. The novel is about the serial resurrection and assassination of Sinclair. The death of the Left. The death of the political novel. One fact my research has unearthed: American presidents used to read novels and take them seriously! Another: seventy or eighty years ago politicians and public figures could speak openly about the cruelty of capitalism (you could even utter the C-word), and you furthermore could count on educated people to know that capitalism and democracy were not synonymous concepts, and often not really even mutually supporting concepts. The novel, if that’s what it is, is satirical in nature, but I hope that the satire is not easy or one-dimensional. The book will seem, I hope, as ambivalent as it seems didactic, because the project grows, in part, out of a sincere ambivalence. I’m not ambivalent about the cruel and crumbling empire, but I am ambivalent about how to engage it artistically. I’m ambivalent about Upton, who on one hand was a tireless, courageous class hero, and on the other hand was a poor writer, an egomaniac, a gullible freak, and a bad father. I’ve written out of conviction, anger, and sorrow, because it feels urgent to do so (and I agree with Doctorow that we face a national emergency); but I’ve also written from genuine confusion and a grudging regard for complexity because I understand, from Virginia Woolf and others, that that’s what real artists do. We’ll see.

    [!]

Chris Bachelder is the author of Bear v. Shark: The Novel. His next novel, entitled U.S.!, about muckraker Upton Sinclair, will be published next year by Bloomsbury.

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