Discover more from The Metropolitan
The Bear Went Over The Mountain
How '90s whimsical satire predicted the twenty-first century
With three TV channels and no internet, we were raised by Puffins; for long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and, sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us and analyse what makes them great.
The Bear Went Over The Mountain (William Kotzwinkle, 1996)
Professor Arthur Bramhall has taken a sabbatical in rural Maine to write a novel, but a bear steals his manuscript. Under the name Hal Jam, the bear takes the book on to the big city, to fame and, eventually, to a kind of humanity. Legally speaking, at least.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, before home video recorders were common, if you loved a film you had to treasure that love up, because you weren’t going to get the chance to see it again until the time, usually some years later, that it finally reached the TV. The only way to experience the film again, reasonably quickly, was through tie-in novels.
I discovered William Kotzwinkle because he wrote the tie-in novel for E.T. The Extraterrestrial. It was a book that I pored over, not really for the story but more for the delirious vision of suburban America it detailed: phoning out for pizza during a Dungeons & Dragons game. Reeses pieces. Recess. Station wagons.
The Bear Went Over The Mountain is not a tie-in book (although apparently Jim Henson bought the rights, and boy would I have loved to see that movie) but it is curiously like E.T.. An alien innocent (a black bear from the Maine woods) stumbles into the world of ‘90s celebrity and finds his essential self under threat from the very humanity by which he is fascinated.
The Metropolitan is like a tie-in novel for Generation X - The Movie (wait, isn’t that Richard Linklater’s Slacker?). Subscribe to get it free to your inbox every Saturday morning.
The Bear Went Over The Mountain is magical realism. The bear is very much a bear, even though all the humans he meets refuse to see this, and his essential bear-ness is key to the book’s satirical engine. It wouldn’t work if it was nothing but a lowly metaphor.
Magical realism is a genre curiously suited to the late ‘80s and ‘90s, a period in which, famously, history was supposed to have ended. Civilisation was a solved problem; capitalist democracy had won. The world - at least, the parts of it that most British teenagers knew about - had been reduced to a series of health and safety-approved shopping centres. It was necessary to introduce magic because reality promised little of its own.
The Bear Went Over The Mountain is interested in how wrong that idea was, in all the apparently tiny, eventually shattering incongruities and inconsistencies that culture held. Hal Jam - the bear - is essentially an adult Paddington, a simpler, purer creature adrift in a world of complex etiquettes and deceptive appearances, whose bewilderment and misunderstandings only serve to highlight the ludicrous assumptions of society.
It is a world where it appears that all that matters is appearance but all anyone really wants to do is get below the surface, to something deeper. One of the characters Hal meets is a woman who writes about angels and how they intervene in human affairs. She is surrounded by plastic tat - cherubim extruded from Taiwanese factories, kitsch empyrean ephemera - and yet she completely believes in her heavenly guardians. What appears to be detached irony is anchored in sincerity.
A great deal of the comedy of the book arises from Hal’s basic, animal instincts juxtaposed with brittle human refinement; in an upscale restaurant the smell of salmon makes him writhe on the floor with delight. Yet Kotzwinkle takes pains to point out that this society runs on those base desires. Hal is overcome with the sheer quantity of calories to which humans have access. At his launch party he orders only cake for catering, cakes that the literary elite cannot bear to eat. Too rich, too common, too desirable. Consumerism rests on insensate greed - for food, sex, success - and guilt about that greed is added on top, a scaffolding of civilised denial and withholding, a kind of Puritan shopping ethic.
At this remove, it is grimly noticeable how much of what was funny in the placid ‘90s is no longer quite so amusing. At one point, Hal Jam saves the Vice-President from a conspiracy theorist assassin whose new world order ravings could have come off some 21st century QAnon message board. He meets a fiercely retrograde evangelist preacher who is planning a run for the presidency on a repressive right-wing ticket. Both ideas have, in the last thirty years, gone from unlikely jokes to ghastly realities.
Most of all, there is the central joke of the book: that none of the publishers, marketeers or journalists have read the novel that they turn into a hit. The publicity machine is everything, so effective that it can make a bear a household name. A wry joke then, a way of life now. Hal Jam is an influencer avant la lettre, paid to eat his favourite snack (Cheesy Things) while on tour.
At its heart The Bear Went Over The Mountain believes in books. It makes fun of the book that Hal steals (Destiny and Desire), but it points out it is a popular book, which people love and which changes their lives. But lurking out there in the woods beyond the writing cabin are the hulking shadows of content creation and the creative industries: the act of writing as one of product development and page filling rather than the making of art or the expression of self.
Where The Bear Went Over The Mountain is really of its time, though, is in it’s core theme, because this, eventually, is a book about stoicism. Bereft of his stolen book, Arthur Bramhall is taken under the wing of his neighbour, retired lumberjack Vinal Pinette (whose own name sounds like some mid-century decorative finish: pine effect vinyl). Pinette introduces Bramhall to all his acquaintances in the hope that their stories will inspire a fresh novel. Their stories all feature parodic bucolic misery. At one point a man they are visiting accidentally chops off one of his toes. On the way to the doctor, the toe falls through a hole in the bottom of his van and gets eaten by Vinal’s dog. All of this is received with an even stoicism.
This is just how the world is. Terrible things happen to you and you just soldier on. This is class-coded; these are hardy, working class backwoods types, just as Hal, in his lack of polish and taste, is presented as a working class intruder in the middle class publishing world. But the polished city types are suffering just as much, suppressing their desires, their good sense and themselves; accepting the implacable horrors of the world with a stoicism that is just as placid and desperate.
It is the ultimate expression of ‘90s ennui: the West has won, and is that what we really wanted? Dissent is commodified; revolution is on sale again. Why bother doing anything? Hal Jam tries to change his very nature, to leave off being a bear and procure an agent and publicist (the American dream!), but gets fatally entranced by the debilitating delights of civilization. And he’s a bear. What chance do us poor humans have?
Mind you, in a twenty-first century world where history has started again and is making up for lost time, perhaps there’s something to be said for just enjoying the cakes while we can.
For more of the ‘90s pre-Internet, post-History moment: