Thursday, April 4, 2013

Review of "The Pickup Artist"

Warning!  I spoil plot points in this review.  So if you don't want to be spoiled, please don't read any further.

     "The Pickup Artist" by Terry Bisson is a novel filled with neat ideas.  That's number one.  The main idea of the story revolves around the elimination of the accumulated artworks of the world, in order to open up space for new artists to flourish.

     The main character -- Hank Shapiro -- is a pickup artist, whose job it is to collect the contraband art, and not sample it; except he decides one day that he wants to listen to a Hank Williams album, and so his life spins out of control in a sort of combination quest and road trip.

     I enjoyed the book, but I have to admit I enjoyed the succession of neat ideas that kept popping up as Hank traveled through future America on his quest to retrieve his lost Hank Williams album.  Multiple chapters also dealt with the history of how the system of destroying the artworks came into being; and by the end of the book, the parallel stories met.  Enough detail about this philosophical system was presented that one might be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Bisson could be sympathetic to the idea -- at least for some artworks.  But I don't want to read too much into that point.

     Most of the reviews I saw about this book referenced "Fahrenheit 451", which I can understand; but in all honesty, as I was reading, I thought the story seemed more classical than Bradbury.  It just seemed to remind me more of the Odyssey, the Aeniad, or the Argonautica more than "Fahrenheit 451".  I'm not going to even attempt any kind of in-depth analysis, because I'm 30+ years beyond graduate school, and I'm way past any hope of doing anything but a hash of that.  Just a few thoughts:
     A) Hank kind of meets the gods of his world in Las Vegas when he meets Damaris and Mr. Bill, although Mr. Bill is dead.  Damaris does give him the straight dope on the inner workings of the world though.
     B) Vegas reminded me of Calypso's island, in the sense of the time-dilation effect that seems to happen there because of how attractive the place is. 
     C) Hank talks to the dead.
     D) The whole book is a road trip.  Yeah, I suppose this could be true of "The Hobbit", or "On the Road", or "The Pilgrim's Progress" too, but it reminded me of The Odyssey.
     E) Hank has a tragic flaw -- curiosity.

     And yeah, so maybe this is all a demented idea, but it made me happy.  Oh, and I've read the Odyssey, the Aenaid, and the Argonautica maybe three or four times each in my life, so it's not like I'm an expert.  And I read "The Pickup Artist" once.

     So, at any rate, I'm perfectly okay with being batshit crazy and way out in left field with this classical notion about the book.  I was just explaining how I organized it in my head as I read it, for what it's worth.  I've been wrong before, and I'll be wrong again.  Count on it.

     So if anyone else has read "The Pickup Artist", I'd be glad to hear from you, especially if you know more than I do, and can provide some interesting thoughts on either the Bradbury angle, my goofy classical angle, or your own angle.

     And anyway, I still liked the book quite a lot.  It still proliferated with those aforementioned neat ideas.  Did I mention the talking dog?  How about the mountain of garbage that people mined for junk?  And Mr. Bisson writes very clean, smooth prose with some really nice sentences scattered along the way.  Check these out:

     "Twenty years ago a rocket filled with robots was sent up to smooth an area on the moon for a print ad.  By the time it was finished the company had failed and the robots had (supposedly) died.  Now all that is left is the streak, like a bright Band-Aid across the face of the stony little planet."

     "Then we laid Bob as straight as possible in the grave.
     "It was a little short, but he was a little bent."

     "The sun was so bright, the whole sky seemed to give off light, like unpainted metal."

     I recommend it.