THE PICKUP ARTIST, by Terry Bisson
Tor, 2001, Paperback, 240pp, $13.95
ISBN 0-312-87421-9

It’s easy to sympathise with the dilemma Terry Bisson suggests in The Pickup Artist, that of the mass of cultural artefacts steadfastly accumulating in museums, libraries, galleries, shops, etc, etc. You see, there’s quite enough of the stuff floating about out there already – where’s all the new stuff supposed to go? I have trouble enough keeping up with the new books that need to be read, without simultaneously absorbing the ‘classics’ and rereading my favourites.

Luckily Bisson has an answer, of sorts. So that we don’t drown in our own culture and so that future Piranesis, Prousts or Presleys are not crushed by the weight of their predecessors’ work, it has been agreed that space must be made for the new. Thus, a monthly lottery takes place to decide which artists will be consigned to the dustbin of history and a random selection of films, books, art and music are regularly deleted – every single example of them tracked down, brought in and destroyed. Within these simple rules there are no exceptions, and fame or ‘relevance’ is not a recognised defence.

Hank Shapiro works for the Bureau of Arts and Entertainment. Each day he follows a list of artworks scheduled for deletion, e.g. The Fugitive (Harrison Ford version), John Grisham’s novels, paintings by Rockwell Kent, etc. It’s a mundane job but Hank is a mundane guy leading a mundane life.

Things start to slip a little when he picks up a Hank Williams LP that catches his eye – and then slip a lot when he tries to listen to it.

The Pickup Artist is written in deadpan crystal-clear prose that perfectly suits Hank. As we progress steadily from order to chaos following the collapse of his empty life around him, Hank’s narrative voice remains the same – it is his surroundings that change as the story gradually moves from an account of a perfectly normal life to a desperately self-deceiving and blackly humorous road-trip apocalypse.

In-between slices of this descent into the maelstrom are meticulous alternate chapters dealing, textbook-fashion, with the history of Hank’s world which serve as interesting philosophical counterpoints to Hank’s narrowly focused narration.

However, much as I enjoyed this book – and I really did enjoy it a great deal – I have to admit that I’m not sure what it was I was supposed to learn from The Pickup Artist.
There are lots of sharp (and funny) satirical points made, and the question ‘when does the accumulated wisdom of so much art become a burden?’ is a good one. However, at the end of the day The Pickup Artist was, for me, a funny and interesting read, nothing more nothing less – a summation that, given the issues Bisson looks to engage with, seems rather damning with (slightly too) faint praise.

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