The Pickup Artist by Terry Bisson

thepickupartist.jpgJust finished reading another interesting “random book.” I was browsing the shelves of Half Price Books when my eye caught the cover of The Pickup Artist by Terry Bisson. The cover combined with the dust jacket blurb inrigued me.

The jacket cover informs that this is a book about Hank Shapiro, a government employee whose job it is to elliminate art. These government employees go around picking up art (books, videos, music, paintings, etc.) that have marked for ellimination to make room for new and exciting art – to break the log jam of information overload. This seemed like an interesting concept so I picked it up. The book wasn’t what I expected but it was still an enjoyable read.

The book’s first and last chapters begin the same way:

Everybody has one thing they keep, one thing that matters to them more than anything else. Life is just a process of ellimination, figuring out what that one thing is. You may figure it out right at the end, just as you’re losing it. If you are lucky.

The book then seems to be a rumination on meaning in life; on the place of art in our lives; and the values of society. It attempts to communicate, or at least hint at these themes, in the course of a novel. (I guess it would be categorized as a fantasy novel or science fiction as it takes place in the future and involves technology and history different from out own.)

So one questions is: did it communicate anything deep or unique about these subjects? It is on this level that the book falters. I d didn’t come away with a new sense of life or a new way of looking or thinking about art or culture. Bisson succedes in some of his satire and fails in others but none of it is serious enough to provide insight into the way we live.

No, the Pickup artist is enjoyable simple as a curious and entertaining story. The story begins as Hank begins another day as an agent of the Bureau of Arts and Information (BAI). He describes the process of “picking up old stuff” as one customer describes it. Hank’s job is simply to collect the art that has been slated for ellimination. As Hank describes his life you begin to realize that he is in a time not our own. He drives a “lectro” not a car; he gets his work assignments from a “slate” not from a computer, etc. These bits and pieces clue you in that the story takes place in the future and one with more sophisticated technology than we have now. Bisson slowly fills in the history leading up to Shapiro’s time in seperate chapters in between the normal narrative chapters.

The story turns when Shapiro picks up a Hank Williams album – hence the name. Apprently, his Dad was a big fan of Mr. Williams and this immediately makes a unconcsious connection. Hank soon takes the album out of his bad (a clear cut no-no) and his adventure begins. This adventure takes him across the country (from New York to Vegas) with a pregnant librarian, a talking dog, and a dead American Indian. Every other chapter reveals more and more about the changes in society that lead to the creation of the BAI and the organized ellimination of books, videos, and music on such a grand scale.

What I found interesting was the world that Bisson depicts. It is a world with obvious technological advances (a huge electric grid that powers and directs vehicles on the highway) but in which society seems to have degraded in many ways (drugies who dig through huge trash piles naked). They have wierd technology that can heal wounds by becoming a sort of growing skin patch and a sort of nano-technology “bug” that can follow humans as well as fall in love with them. But they also have a masive black market that sell “bush meat.” Reading the book was like wathcing an artist paint an alternate world. THe story was interesting enough to keep me going and I enjoyed “the view” as I went along.

In the end, I would say if you find fantasy/science fiction – and a wierd mixture of utopia and dystopia – interesting, this book might be for you. Or if you are just looking for something different to read this might staisfy your curiosity.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).