Friday, August 07, 2009

Ex Libris: Terry Bisson's The Pickup Artist

Writing funnies is a serious business. And among the writers I’ve heard about, there is none more serious here than Terry Bisson.

This is quite evident in Bisson’s The Pickup Artist, a skewering satire on Art, its creation and the business that goes with it. The keyword here is satire, of course, which is the difference between being just funny and socially relevant as well (hence the serious business).

Echoing Ray Bradbury’s seminal Fahrenheit 451, Bisson’s protagonist Hank Shapiro is a pickup artist, one who makes a living collecting art for the Bureau of Art Enforcement. Like the world of Fahrenheit 451, the artworks in Bisson’s near-future tale are being erased: the works burned and the artists deleted from the world’s databanks. Fahrenheit 451, Shapiro’s world is suffering from creative overload, With so much art being created, there is almost no room for new ones.

The solution? Create a canon of grandmasters for all the fields of art (music, painting, books, etc.) and start erasing the rest after a period of time. The problem starts when Shapiro—curious about a vinyl record by country singer Hank Williams—holds on to the illicit work to listen to it. The tale then transforms into a road trip-story as Shapiro chases the record album across the US in the company of his half-dead dog, a woman pregnant for nine years, and the body of an Indian clone named Bob.

Bisson has envisioned a strange future indeed for the US. There are surreal pharmaceuticals (HalfLife© and Last Rites©), violent revolutionaries (the Alexandrians—named “after the fire, not the library”), and Las Vegas seceded from the rest of the country (okay, it’s not that strange). But really, it’s how Art is regarded in this world—off-key in that it seems to be missing a few notes of a song—that is the centrepiece of the story. Bisson details how events could push (or allow) people to destroy art for art’s sake. The irony is well-noted indeed.

One thing I’ve found about satires is that they may not necessarily be laugh-out loud funny in order to be humorous. Satire is funny, as the adage goes, because it’s all-too true—or too close to home. However, the problem of a story being socially relevant is that sometimes you can get overtaken by real events. On a trivial note, Bisson notes superstar Michael Jackson still alive and well in this story. Who would have thought the pop icon would be dead by this year at the age of 50?

Unfortunately, despite the engaging and well-made story, I’ve never been much interested in Americana (with the exception of Western stories). And so though I managed to finish this book, I never found myself involved with it. But that’s a personal fault of mine rather than of the book, so your mileage may vary. (Rating: Two paws out of four.)

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