Tuesday, 29 January 2002

Norman Spinrad: Bug Jack Barron (1969)

Edition: Toxic, 1999 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1054

This edition of Spinrad's classic novel proudly plasters Donald A. Wollheim's denunciation of it across the front cover - "depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive and thoroughly degenerate". It caused quite a fuss when originally published at the end of the sixties - its initial serial appearance in New Worlds almost led to the end of the magazine when the big chains of British newsagents refused to stock it, and questions were raised in Parliament as a result - and even now it is quite easy to see why this was the case.

Jack Barron is at the centre of the top rated US TV show, where ordinary people phone in to "bug Jack Barron", for him to then take up their cases with whoever can do something to sort out their problem, whether businesses or government. He is surprised when one current issue - a bill offering a monopoly to a private company which uses cryogenics to preserve people until treatments bringing immortality can be developed - seems to be causing more embarrassment to those he calls than his probing should merit, and he becomes embroiled in political manoeuvrings and corruption as he continues to investigate.

There may have been shocks in the details - Spinrad's America has legalised cannabis, for example - but it is the brutal cynicism of Bug Jack Barron which was almost certainly the main problem. The political history of the West in the twentieth century can be seen as one of diminishing trust in authority figures, due to a combination of corruption and incompetence; Bug Jack Barron anticipates the concerns of a post-Watergate society. Nobody really believes in what they do, except for Barron's idealistic wife; politics is about scrabbling for power not about inner belief. The novel is more or less contemporary with 2001, both internally and externally, but is in fact much closer to the reality we live in now than Kubrick and Clarke's utopian vision.

Spinrad is wrong about some things, of course. The principal thing that he failed to see is the triviality of modern popular culture. The sort of shows that are the closest equivalents to Bug Jack Barron are not about his kind of big issues, but about the lives of ordinary people. He is a combination of Jerry Springer and Jeremy Paxman, but the former is far more popular than the latter. Even on details, however, he can seem extraordinarily prophetic - he has Reagan down as a future President, for example.

Bug Jack Barron is written in a stream of consciousness style principally derived from William Burroughs. This makes it quite difficult to read in places, but it is certainly well worth the effort it requires.

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