January 8th, 2012

Bug Jack Barron

It's funny how you can know about something, yet not know about it at the same time. Such is the case of Bug Jack Barron, a 1969 novel by Norman Spinrad. The reason I should have known about it is that it heavily influenced Transmetropolitan - his name is plastered all over writings about the graphic series and yet somehow in my youthful HST tunnel vision I failed to pick up on it.

It's possible that the timing was all wrong too - it was recently re-released as an eBook on Smashwords, so it was probably out of print for some time. The first couple of chapters had me lost for a bit before the story picked up its groove, and once I got on track that the "Bug" part was not a nickname, but the name of Jack Barron's call-in show, things went more smoothly from there.

I think it's unfair to categorize the book as science fiction, but it certainly must have seemed that way over 40 years ago. People were still struggling to figure out how all this new media and technology jazz was going to work or change their lives. Thankfully there isn't a heavy focus on technology - nothing is more painful than the clunky names that authors gave technology back then. In the future, a phone will still be called a phone, but there's no way Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury could have guessed that. The one glaring piece of outdated technology in the book is in fact the Bell Videophone, which just never ever caught on. The videophone figures prominently as the main form of communication between Jack, his friends, callers and enemies.

A good deal of attention is paid to the format of the call-in show, where Jack constantly signals to his producer to manipulate what the viewer sees - such as splitting the screen and cutting callers off. As such, the book also explores media literacy. I almost want to know if TV and radio personalities had as much power back in the day, or if Spinrad was just able to predict the power one personality could have over an audience.

Bug Jack Barron really gave me the shivers in more ways than one and it's fair to say that a lot of the concepts in the book have come to pass. Jack Barron is a social activist turned talk-show superstar, inviting his audience members to call in with what's bugging them. He stumbles quite by accident into a conspiracy that crosses race, economic status and political corruption.

It seems prudent to warn that the character of Jack Barron is also a little sexist and the characters often expouse racial ephitets. Jack is a bastard, plain and simple, and either you love bastard characters and writers or you don't. Anything that involves the future is also a product of the time it was made. I sense there is increasing discomfort with people of today looking at things of the past with all their ugly inequalities and prejudices. But it would be a shame to reject these cultural works or histories because they only serve as a reminder of how much growing and changing society has done and still has to do.

Like HST, Spinrad was also influenced by the Beats, seen in the stream of consciousness flow of the characters thoughts, anxieties and nightmares. Naturally there is a drug influence too. More straight up narration and storytelling alternates with this flow to make an interesting, well-rounded novel. I really enjoyed Spinrad's economical style of writing which keeps the book at a great pace. Gonzo fans will definitely enjoy this story of a hero-journalist!