Author: Sam Pink
Type of Book: Fiction, alt lit
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I thought it was going to suck a’plenty and was pleasantly proven wrong.
Availability: Published by Lazy Fascist Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
(WHOOT! As of Tuesday evening, it appears as if the Kindle version of this book is free. Check it out!)
Comments: Back when I bought a copy of Shoplifting from American Apparel, I also bought a copy of Person by Sam Pink. Since my first exposure to alt lit resulted in what can only be called a complete nervous book-down, I was understandably reluctant to read Pink. Lin’s SfAA filled me with such disgust that had I read anything similar immediately afterward and then discussed it I would have needed a new anus.
But a few years have passed, and the fire of my hatred has dimmed. Also, Person is a slim volume and tempted me after I had finished The Goldfinch, which, as much as I love Donna Tartt, was a brick, and a very tiresome brick at around page 550. I needed something easy and something quick and there Person was, in my nightstand cupboard, nestled in with far longer and more outrageous fare. So I decided to just hold my nose and jump into Person and see what happened.
Person and SfAA are very similar books. Both feature disaffected, grubby young protagonists. Both books mine the same disenchanted hipster veins. The very structures of the books down to the sentence formations are similar. So how come I really like Person?
It’s difficult to explain, and because I recently got my winter clothes out (Jesus, I began this discussion back in mid-November – ugh!), I think I have a decent enough explanation. You know how it is that one red sweater can make you look like a porcelain-skinned angel and another red sweater can make you look like a chapped potato? They’re both red, just different reds. But you know, that analogy is a bad one because the red that makes me look like someone’s ruddy Irish nanna isn’t innately a shitty color and the one that makes me look like I’ve never once had a sunburn isn’t innately a heavenly color. By any sane standard, SfAA is a terrible book. I guess what I am saying here is that for the most part I hate most alt lit (and increasingly the writers behind the genre), but you can’t judge a book by its color just because some colors look better than others. And if it seems like I am being completely incoherent so that pompous tenured professors working in the Corn Belt can insult me because every extemporaneous book discussion needs to be indistinguishable from a doctoral thesis, that isn’t what’s happening. Nope. Not at all.
Still, I think I can make a case for why it is that Person is such a better book. Or at least a book worth reading.
The Person in Person is a grubby young man who is living a grubby, tiresome life. He has very little money. He has a roommate for whom he feels a lot of enmity but whom he treats reasonably politely. Sometimes he tries to get a job. Sometimes he sleeps with a girl who lives in his apartment complex. Mostly he wanders the cold, horrible streets of a city, any city, realizing how bleak things are and how little will he possesses to change. He is a complete misanthrope, which is nice because in alt lit one gets very overwhelmed by Lin-esque writers who don’t even have the depth of humanity to hate – they just mock and hope we feel really bad when they are finished.
In a sense, what redeems this book is that the protagonist, as he goes through the motions, seems to see life as a rehearsal for something else, something different, if not better. “It feels like practice” is repeated throughout the book like a mantra.
I walk by a group of people standing outside a bar and someone almost bumps into me.
I imagine myself pulling this person apart with my hands.
Just pulling off pieces of face and neck and upper-chest.
Just ripping an arm off with a single pull.
Could I accomplish that.
What would this person think of himself if I were to do that.
Would he fight it, or accept it as inevitable.
What would the people walking think.
I walk by them all and smell perfume and I am no different.
It feels like practice.
The protagonist has what could be interpreted as a flat affect, but he feels, he seethes, he despairs and he knows it is all in preparation for something, practice for a hobby or a habit he has yet to develop but will soon, hopefully. But it’s not all seething speculation.
I see a candy bar wrapper on the ground.
I think, “So what.”
Then I walk in the same direction as before.
It feels like practice.
So what, it’s all the same thing, but it helps to prepare for pointless monotony. But it’s also unspeakably sad to read this protagonist, who fantasizes about walking up to people and asking if they will spend time with him because he is… well, he doesn’t know, but he does want to know people love him and think of him, and see him practice yet never achieve mastery.
I pay for my pencil and the man behind the register tells me to have a good night.
I wonder what a good night is to him and then I wonder the same thing about myself.
It occurs to me that in order for that communication to work, myself and the man would have to come to an agreement about what it meant.
I’m too scared,
It feels like practice.
“It feels like practice” is the last sentence in the book and the ending is, to spoil things some, a bit of a downer, but when everything is practice nothing is learned. Nothing becomes natural. The protagonist of Person is an Everyman, if that isn’t too obvious, a representation of the overall shittiness of being young in the city in America, with just enough education to want more but more than enough depression to know that no matter how long one hangs on, practices, rehearses, not a lot is going to change. Different roommates, different towns, different apartments – it’s all going to be practice for a show that will never be staged.
And it should go without saying that you should use all quotes as a guide to the structure of this novel. Short sentences, simple structure, straightforward prose, deceptively childish with a see-dick-run cadence that, with the right writer, is less annoying than it sounds.
Pink and Pink’s protagonist both have a certain level of self-awareness of how ridiculous some situations seem. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I found worth in this book while I detested SfAA – self-aware humor.
Take this scene wherein the protagonist is avoiding his roommate:
My roommate knocks on my door and I try not to move.
My heart is beating fast.
He knocks again and then leaves.
This is but one of the many victories I have exampled as a human among humans.
I have no equals.
My strength goes unmatched.
I have moments like this more often than I realized until I deliberately took notice. I didn’t punch the woman screaming at her kids while simultaneously being rude as hell to the teenaged clerk struggling to ring up her pile of grease and sugar disguised as groceries? I am Mother Teresa and can very likely cure the lepers. I stared down the man who continually permits his dog to crap in my yard without ever cleaning up the mess and he looked away first? I am clearly the only remaining force for moral decency. And this passage is sort of a litmus test – if you found this as amusing as I did (with or without the intense sense of identification) then you likely will enjoy this book.
And who can blame the protagonist for taking such faux-pride in avoiding a roommate when the world has become so trivial yet niggling that every attempt to better one’s situation becomes a labyrinthine and bureaucratic nightmare. In such a world, we must celebrate the small victories we achieve.
The grocery store I interviewed at a while ago has asked me to come to a second interview.
For bagging groceries.
They said there might be a third interview too.
For bagging groceries.
Yep. He’s probably gonna have to report for a drug test.
For bagging groceries.
He will also have to spend a week learning corporate policies.
For bagging groceries.
When I was in my twenties, I worked at a grocery store in Westlake Hills, a monied suburb of Austin. In the three months I lasted, there were several incidents wherein customers felt it within their rights as human beings to put their hands on the teenagers and old men who bagged groceries. Like strike them or shove them. One kid brushed up against the paint on a customer’s expensive SUV. Like his jacket covered arm slid across the side of the car as the kid was finishing up putting groceries in the back of the hatch. The female customer slapped him in the face. The bag boy was a minor and I think she got arrested. Because a fabric covered arm touched her car’s paint job. I had an angry diabetic grab my arm so hard she left bruises. Evidently Candy City didn’t have enough candies made from Nutrasweet, which is important because sorbitol gives you diarrhea. I assume she was weakened by a really bad bout of sugar-free malted milk ball-induced runs or she would have beaten my ass for such an oversight. These are jobs we need three interviews and a drug test to perform but if you are lucky one of the customers will hurt you so badly you can sue. So there’s that.
Perhaps I like Pink’s Person because I identify with the protagonist, whose humorous self-loathing rings a bit too true at times.
Somewhere someone is teaching me to another person.
And the teacher uses a metaphor involving a garbage truck that has run out of gas halfway to the garbage dump.
And the student nods.
But this next passage is what made me realize I would need to get the rest of Pink’s books and read them as soon as I can. The protagonist needs to pay the rent and it is fraught with difficulties that only the misanthropic introvert can really understand.
My landlord crosses the parking lot at the same time.
The rent check is in my pocket.
I forgot to drop it off before I left.
Now, seeing her, I know I have to actually go into her office.
She has some vague expectation of her tenants, where we all act like family, rather than people with no interest in each other.
I’m trying to say she is delusional and I don’t identify with her as a human being.
How many jobs have you had wherein management insisted you are all one big family. How many weird living situations, like dorm rooms or nasty apartments, have wanted to foster a family environment? How many times have you encountered someone online who refers to herself as a universal mother or aunt? I guarantee you it’s happened to you more than once, this bullshit “we’re all family” scenario and each time it happens it presaged something unpleasant to come. Family is expected to work for nearly free, like we’re all immigrants fresh off Ellis Island and working together to establish a family business. Family members overlook constant flatulence because Dad is sort of scary, and the same person, usually you, cracks and cleans the toilet even when it isn’t their turn, because, goddamn it, they refuse to live like an animal among their “family” but cannot take another blow out that will inevitably happen when they call a family meeting about the filth in the bathroom. And that online Aunt or Uncle or Mom generally has some huge fucking complex fueling their forced familiarity and warmth and when they crack it’s gonna end up on the front page of Reddit and you’ll have to change your user name. Again.
I really enjoyed reading this book, which is sort of perverse because you know it isn’t going to end well, but had it ended well it would have been a lie. The Person isn’t going to land an excellent job that helps him overcome his metaphysical despair. The Person isn’t going to find the perfect girl who will lift him out of himself. He isn’t even going to be able to shower as regularly as he should. He’s depressed. He hates you but also secretly loves you and even more secretly wants your dog to kill him. And you’ll either love him or hate him. I loved him mainly because I sort of am him, though I lucked out and married well and at least don’t have to worry about annoying roommates and drug tests anymore.
I know that some alt lit fans may find my loathing for Lin and affection for Pink to be highly subjective, and it is. I can read Hemingway and enjoy it but I detest Fitzgerald. Both are arguably very good writers. But one speaks to me and the other doesn’t. In Pink I found a self-awareness, a humor, a willingness to examine the self even when the examination was unpleasant. I didn’t get that in SfAA and, worse, I felt as if the reader was more or less being mocked along with the non-Sam characters in the book, for not realizing that the book was a look at the self of a man who lacked one. Lin just vomited up what had really happened in his life, assigned different names, and called it a fiction novella and many felt as if denying its worth meant they would be the butt of the joke. Not so with Pink. He lets us in on the joke, the horrible, miserable joke that is being young, broke and depressed while being bitterly aware of it every fucking minute.
So I sort of feel like kicking myself for putting off reading Pink for four years or so. But I won’t. Instead I’ll just buy his other books and hope for the same pleasant darkness I felt as I read Person.