Norman Spinrad managed to bug just about everybody with Bug
Jack Barron
(1969). The book got attacked in Parliament. The
Daily Express
branded it as filth.  Book and magazine retailer
Menzies removed it from its racks, and even phoned up its competitor
WH Smith and convinced them to do the same.  Even before it had
been released, the publisher commissioning the novel refused to
issue it. The work was then accepted by Michael Moorcock for
publication in his magazine
New Worlds, but the feminist printers
who typeset for the periodical also mounted
a protest against Spinrad’s text.

And how does the novel hold up almost a half-
century later?  Has it mellowed with age?

No, not a bit.  

You still couldn't assign this book in a classroom
without stirring up a wave of protest and discontent.  
Many would object to the racial epithets, which come
at the reader strong and hard in the first paragraph,
and keep on coming for the duration of the novel.  
Others would seek out and find, without much difficulty,
examples of sexism, obscenity, blasphemy, vulgarity,
glorification of drug use, ridicule of authority figures,
and the cynical advocacy of a range of unpopular
political ideologies. In short, whether you are on the
Right or Left, progressive or reactionary, Red State
or Blue State, believer or atheist or agnostic…
whatever floats your boat, Spinrad just gave you a
leak and you’re taking water fast.

In his own prickly and cussed way, Spinrad has ensured that his most
famous book will languish in obscurity, neglected by most and attacked
by a few. In a way, that's sad. Spinrad brilliantly anticipated many aspects
of 21st century culture, and few science fiction works from the 1960s still
contain so many relevant and thought-provoking insights on the dangerous
intersection of mass media, technology and politics in the current day. If
you are willing to have your sensibilities tweaked, and sometimes stomped
on—and, I assure you, that will happen repeatedly in this book—you will
get some compensation from the smart, provocative things Spinrad has
to say about talk radio, social networking, cable TV and the worldwide web.

Well, let me be honest, he doesn't actually mention any of those platforms
Bug Jack Barron. Spinrad got many of the details wrong, but he
understood the Big Picture, conceiving how the medium massages
the message, or sometimes just beats it into submission. He saw
how reality would turn virtual, how media would become interactive,
how politics would get engulfed by images on screens and showbiz
priorities. Above all, he anticipated the angry, in-your-face tone of modern
day ideological rhetoric.  Even back in the days of Walter Cronkite,
Spinrad saw the more hardball, partisan style of ratings-driven commentary
that now follows us wherever we go—surfing the web, listen to the radio
in our car, watching the big screen TV in our living room of the smaller
one on our handheld device.

Jack Barron, our hero of sorts, is the star of a hit TV interactive talk show
that attracts 100 million viewers every Wednesday night.  He is Bill
O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh all rolled into
one, a brash talking head who combines pushing-the-envelope commentary
with populist rhetoric and showbiz theatrics. Viewers are invited to "bug
Jack Barron" with whatever is bugging them. They are connected in real
time with the host and home audience via a video-phone, and share their
gripes and rants. Then Jack Barron takes their grievances and runs with
them—calling up powerful people and putting them on the vid-screen,
forcing them to answer tough questions about the issue
du jour.   

At the start of the novel, the hot issue is cold, very cold. A large nonprofit
is charging wealthy people a half million dollars to be frozen when they 'die',
get warehoused in cold storage, and resurrected at some future date,
when an immortality cure is made available. The head of the nonprofit,
wealthy and corrupt Benedict Howards, is using his political clout to get
his freezer operation turned into a government-approved monopoly.  A
rival movement wants freezing turned into an entitlement, offered free to

Jack Barron is thrust into the center of this ideological warfare.  Howards
wants to bribe him, while various political operatives want to enlist the talk
show host into opposing the wealthy freezer magnate's scheme.  But
Barron must also worry about a host of other interests and risks. The FCC
might shut down his TV show.  His hard-hitting investigation into the
freezer controversy also leaves him open to libel suits. Old friends want
new favors and, adding to the complication, the love of his life Sara
Westerfeld has shown up after years of separation…and she is secretly
in cahoots with Benedict Howards.  

This story is compelling and, despite a few implausible plot twists, gets
more interesting as the novel develops.  But Spinrad is often his own
worst enemy, loading down his tale with bloated and repetitive stream-
of-consciousness interludes.  Whenever these arrive, they are jarring, and
soon they become predictable and tiresome. Perhaps if Spinrad
possessed the knack for wordplay of a Joyce, or the prose style of a
Woolf, or the cleverness of a Nabokov, he could have pulled this off.
But he flounders instead, tossing off the same phrases and references
over and over again. Jack Barron, celebrity TV star, ought to be an
exciting protagonist for a stream-of-consciousness novel, but by the time
Spinrad is done with him, Leopold Bloom looks like Mr. Excitement by
comparison.  Even more to the point, this technique is out-of-keeping
with the rest of the novel, which is distinguished by crisp dialogue and
forceful, no-nonsense characters engaged in
mano a mano political
intrigue. It's almost as if Spinrad hadn't decided whether he wanted to
write a dreamy and poetic experimental novel, or a hard-boiled futuristic
thriller, and compromised by mixing up both styles. The result is a
strange hybrid, a kind of warm and fuzzy cyberpunk, cooing and
strident by turns.  

So, yes, you have many reasons to keep away from this novel. It will
probably offend you repeatedly, and if you do persist in reading it, it
will make unreasonable demands, frustrating even the most patient
reader. Despite these shortcomings, you still might want to make
the plunge. A book so willing to upset you is also likely to provoke you
into new ways of thinking.  Even more to the point: there are plenty of
Jack Barrons out there today, in fact more now than ever before.  
Perhaps exposure to this kind of virulence in the form of a novel—
bloated, disturbing, cantankerous by turns—will help you build up an
immunity when you encounter it on a screen, small or large. And you
will, I assure you, you will.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love
songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: August 7, 2014
conceptual fiction
Bug Jack Barron

by Norman Spinrad
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