Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Pickup Artist - Terry Bisson

2001; 240 pages. Genre : Fiction; Satire. Overall Rating : "B".
Hank Shapiro is a Pickup Artist. There's too much art in the world - paintings, albums & CD's, books, films, etc. Some of it needs to be catalogued , archived, and destroyed so that new works can take its place. Hank is part of the "Deletions" division, going around and picking up those items specified for elimination from people who voluntarily turn them in. He might even give you a rebate if you're nice. For the involuntary seizures, there's an "Enforcement" division.
All goes well until one day when he picks up a Hank Williams LP, and realizes this is who his parents named him after. Alas, HW is on the "Eliminated" list and no one, not even a Pickup Artist is allowed to listen to him anymore.
What's To Like...
There's a Fahrenheit 451 storyline here, but the main charm is the vividly-detailed world Bisson paints, which is set in New York City as the story opens. He's created some great characters. There's Henry (female), who's 8½ years pregnant and wants to go to Vegas (which has seceded from the USA and is now an independent city-state) to find the father-to-be, who ran off years ago. There's Homer, Hank's lovable old dog, who dies, yet is kept in existence through the wonders of illicit drugs. And there's 77 Indian Bobs, genetically identical clones who were made so that modern man can appreciate the noble Native American savage. Unfortunately, funding ran out before they could clone their 77 female companions.
And then there's the satire. On a deeper level, The Pickup Artist is Bisson's vision of where American culture is going. He shows us Misdemeanor Bars, where you can go to listen to deleted music and watch deleted DVD's. The authorities are aware of these, but generally let them subsist. He shows us Flee Markets, where anything - legal or otherwise - can be bought and sold. But they only have a 24-hour grace period in any given state, so every night they flee across state lines. There are several drugs in Bisson's world, the most interesting of which is "Dig" (a take-off of meth, perhaps?) whose users have an uncontrollable urge to dig - in old landfills for discarded trinkets - when they're high on it. And although money and credit exist, the preferred currency is Indian casino chips, despite the fact that the exchange rates always rip you off.
The chapters are short, and separated by "Interludes" wherein Bisson gives the history of the art extermination movement. And he gives some great examples (such as "A Canticle For Liebowitz" by Walter Miller) of worthy artists whose works have already pretty much been forgotten.
New/Kewl Words...
Midden : a dunghill; a refuse heap. Ephemera : collectible items not originally intended to last for more than a short time, such as postcards, labels, posters, tickets, etc.
"I mean the tree of art, unless pruned, will stop bearing fruit."
"We're not just art," I said. "We do music, literature and movies. No fruit."
"I know," she said. "It's a metaphor."
"We don't do metaphors either," I said. Then added : "It's a joke." (pg. 39)
"I'm dead! I'll be dead from now on. Forever!"
"It's just the deal," said Henry. "It's okay."
"It's not okay!" Though his dessicated body had ceased, or almost ceased, to smell, Bob's breath was fouler than ever. I had to keep backing up just to talk to him.
"He has to be completely dead," said Womack, who was standing in the doorway, shaking his head. "There are regulations, even here in Vegas."
"He really is pretty muich dead," said Henry. "This is just a residual effect of the LastRites which saturates the alveolar tissues." (pg. 197. LastRites is a drug)
What if...
I enjoyed The Pickup Artist, and it got me to wondering - what if we really had such a regulation? Would it help Kelly Clarkson's career if, say, all of Janis Joplin's music was deleted? Would more people go see The Lovely Bones if Star Wars wasn't around? Would it be easier for aspiring poets and novelists to get published if we no longer had Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller? Maybe Bisson's premise here has merit. Who cares anymore about Frank Sinatra or Walter Miller?
I give The Pickup Artist a "B" because I always enjoy spending time in his worlds. It's a good book, as long as you're in the mood for well thought-out satire and don't mind the plotline playing second fiddle. Bisson is not for everyone, but you should read one of his books anyway, before he passes away and his works are deleted to make way for newer fiction.

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