On PERSON by Sam Pink

If you read just one book this year, let it be Sam Pink’s Person. It is blessedly short, for one. Which is a strangely rare virtue these days, with many recently published novels looking in their girth more like reference material than works of fiction. On the other hand, Mr. Pink — and one wonders if this is a satirical pseudonym drawn from Tarantino or some other equally irreverent artist, to whose number the author clearly belongs — has recognized and embraced the often overlooked tenet that brevity becomes a writer. It takes both self-control and artistic maturity to avoid longwindedness. More, it takes humility. Another quality that is notoriously hard to come by among authors. But Mr. Pink, if one were to judge by the narrator of his novel, is nothing if not humble. He is also perceptive, honest, and hilarious. In a word, he is wise. And while he would likely be the first to deny such an accusation, it is apparent in every page, and even in every line, of his book. This is so not only owing to Mr. Pink’s undeniable (if idiosyncratic) talent, but because of the way he organizes the text: each of the narrator’s thoughts is allotted its own line. The effect is to focus the reader’s attention on the individual moments of perception experienced by the character, slowing down time in the way the best books can. But don’t expect lyrical disquisitions on the beauty of the streets of Chicago, where the narrator is wandering aimlessly when we first meet him. He and beauty are not on speaking terms. In fact, at first glance, the only thing this Person seems to loathe more than his city and all its inhabitants is himself: “this dipshit with an ugly face.” And for a brief while it is tempting to write his story off as no more than a profane confessional of self-hate. But read on and you will discover that there is something far more interesting going on here.

You see, for all his humility, Mr. Pink does not lack ambition, even if his protagonist seems devoid of it. And what he has set out to do in a mere 80-odd pages, is, as the title suggests, to draw a real human being: conflicted, fearful, hopeful, full of love and hate in equal measure. His method is to construct (or deconstruct) the mental and spiritual travails of the everyman ‘loser’ whom most of us have felt like at one or another time in our lives. But what sets his work apart from other efforts similarly billed, is his persistent refusal to allow the narrative to devolve into the conventional and the cliched, or the pretentiously allegorical. His keen eye for the surreal within the real, and the unflinching, minutely observed rendering of the narrator’s thoughts, make almost every line unexpected, often absurdly comical or brutal, at times profound, and nearly always true. Page for page, this is probably the most quotable contemporary piece of fiction you are likely to read. Some lines appear more than once, giving a hint of the author’s thematic intentions. Just as Kurt Vonnegut’s narrators and Holden Caufield, the prototypical alienated youth, had their definitive, go-to phrases, so does Pink’s Person. “It feels like practice,” is probably the one encountered most often, but there are others. And all of them finally lead to the question at the center of Mr. Pink’s narrative, which also defined the struggle of the original conflicted literary soul, whose internal debate whether to be or not to be was perhaps more dignified but not necessarily more urgent.

The modern Person’s answer to that primal question appears ambivalent. At one point, the dispossessed Prince of Chicago declares in a characteristically self-mocking deadpan, “This is the defining moment, when I have enough self-esteem to say yes to better socks and better hygiene.” It is an indication of movement in the direction of being, but hardly a sign of arrival. Though perhaps Pink’s antihero take a less binary and more dialectical approach to the question, seeing the possibility of existing somewhere in between the two opposing poles. Whatever the case may be, the result of his (mis)adventures and musings is quite frequently — and startlingly, because he is so adamantly unsentimental and clownish in his language as to often sound crass — remarkably beautiful. More, we soon begin to understand that for all his dark, at times half-mad and seemingly nihilistic reflections, he too is beautiful and good, and thus not beyond hope.

All that is not to say that the book is without its flaws. It could arguably have stronger narrative momentum, though that would clearly go counter to the ethos of this story and its protagonist. Amidst the basic facts of the Person’s existence — he has a roommate, he sleeps with a neighbor in the building, he is running out of money and failing to do anything about it — there are only the lightest intimations of a plot, and if he undergoes a transformation of any sort it is a subtle and inconclusive one. At the same time, the author’s decision to offer alternative versions of some of the chapters, while interesting as an experiment, produces questionable results. The duplicates rarely feel essential, and one can’t help getting the suspicion that the need to bump up the page count and/or editorial indecision were at least partly behind their inclusion. But these are minor complaints against an otherwise impressive, moving, and truly original work. And this reader, for one, hopes Mr. Pink gets the recognition he deserves for his unique voice and vision — as well as for his guts in staying true to them — and doubly so for keeping it short. To paraphrase Babel’s famous line about Benya Krik, Pink’s Person doesn’t talk much, but he talks fine. He speaks little, but you want him to say something else.

–Ilya Lyashevsky lives in Brooklyn, where he writes fiction and software. His current project, combining technology and literature, can be found here.

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