by Sam Pink, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE Benjamin Samuel
Consider this introduction a warning: Reading Sam Pink may make you a danger to society. The voice here in Rontel, as it was in Pink’s previous novel Person, is invasive. It will burrow its way deep into your brain and then echo through your gray matter. You will find yourself thinking the way his narrators think, and will then wonder if those fucked up thoughts tunneled in recently or if they were always there just waiting to be dug up.
Putting you further at risk, we’re teaming up with Lazy Fascist Press to release a special digital edition of Rontel, Sam Pink’s new novel, debuting on Valentine’s Day 2013. The narrator of Rontel, excerpted here, admits, “If people had access to my thoughts and feelings, I’d be asked to live on a rock in outer space — one with a long tether to a building in Chicago if any of my friends (just kidding) wanted to come visit.” This man, however, is not a psychotic. He goes shopping with his girlfriend, he has a pet cat, he sees a loose hot dog on the floor of the supermarket believes it is the “saddest thing ever.” He is just like you. The reality is that this man’s disturbing thoughts and feelings are not his alone; we all banish and repress similar thoughts so we can function in society, so we can cohabitate without completely repulsing those around us.
In a sense, living in a city like Chicago or New York is like being stuck in a terrible relationship. There’s a harmony of infatuation and disgust — a rat scurries along the subway tracks, it’s revolting but at least you’re not the only watching. At least you’re not alone. You loathe the city, and yet you know you’ll never leave it. Yes, it’s dysfunctional, but — unless you’re nothing like the rest of us — so are you.
Rontel’s narrator is an unnamed man for whom life is a “pile of things” that refuses to work together; a man whose underlying problem is that adulthood arrived without ceremony or certification. The novel is unsettling (often hysterically so), and it would be easy to call it “gritty” or “raw,” but really it’s just honest. In Rontel, we begin to recognize ourselves in a man who cannot relate to others, we realize that we all deserve to be exiled for the thoughts we’ve thought, the things we’ve nearly done.
Here is the call of the void that we’ve all heard but aren’t supposed to acknowledge. Here is our secret suspicion and fear that the universe, in all its magnificence and complexity, might be conspiring for meaninglessness, aligning itself in time for you to get hit by a taxi while eating a hot dog as you cross the street.
And yet, despite all this, in life and in Sam Pink’s fiction, there is a longing for connection, for interdependence. We may be incapable of many things, but our ultimate desires, our yearning for something better than ourselves, persists. We’re each of us dysfunctional, but, as Rontel’s narrator insists, “I still work, motherfucker.”
Co-Editor, Recommended Reading
ON THE BLUE LINE TRAIN, there was a day-old newspaper on the seat next to me.
A small daily paper.
It had stories about what celebrities ate at what Chicago restaurants.
It told people what movies to see and what shows to watch and what books to read and what to do for fun.
It had “where to drink” suggestions that referenced “cool bars/city spots” for the white people in the city who all moved here together after college.
The daily paper also had “debate” articles between staff writers who were trying to be funny/cute.
The debates would be like, “Is it ok to date someone who hates your best friend.”
Or, “What’s the code for roommate bathroom sharing.”
Or, “Are moustaches cool.”
Or, “Hash browns or fruit for breakfast.”
Today I read the crime blotter.
I liked the crime blotter.
The only place in the newspaper where they just stated facts about something that happened without trying to make it fun.
My favorite crime blotter ever was: “Man in Uptown beats upstairs neighbor then drags her to the basement and sets her on fire.”
Today there were four news items in the crime blotter.
One was about a man forcing children into his car and then molesting them in an alley.
The next was about a man raping a child who attended the daycare his wife ran at their home.
Next one about a man stabbing his doctor then trying to rape her.
Next one about a man who died in an alley after being stabbed in the throat “repeatedly.”
I looked up from the paper and out the window.
Felt like my face was the ugliest melt ever at that point.
Like, the worst.
I felt so stupid looking.
Always felt ugly and stupid on the train.
Like almost, sagged.
Sagged out and sorry.
Sorry I’m so saggy, but I’m sagged out and sorry.
Suck my dick — I thought, addressing myself.
The train was underground.
I stared at the tunnel wall, and its lighting.
Thought about stabbing someone in the throat repeatedly.
Is there any way to do it except repeatedly.
Could it really stop after one stab.
I thought about stabbing someone once then just standing there.
Seemed like that would be worse.
What would I do just standing there after the first stab.
Would I talk to the victim.
If they said something to me, I feel like I’d definitely respond.
So I’d either have to stand there to make sure the person died or stab them repeatedly to ensure it.
Also, seemed like if I stabbed once then paused, it would be hard to get back into it.
It’d be like sweating in a shirt then taking the shirt off and putting it back on, like, fifteen minutes later.
Once seemed cruel.
That would be the worst thing to read: “Man stabbed in throat once, dies in alley over an extended period of time.”
Just get it done — I thought, looking back inside the train car.
Finish everything you start.
I’ma finish you, Chicago — I thought, feeling pleasure in my testicles from the shaking of the train.
At the other end of the train car there was a kid in a mechanized wheelchair device.
He had his thumb in his mouth.
He had a really serious look on his face.
An older woman stood behind him with her hands on the wheelchair.
On the left armrest of the wheelchair device there was a keyboard attached to something.
We made eye contact.
Felt like I was looking at myself.
With the hand of the thumb in his mouth, he waved by bending all four fingers down and up and down and up.
The way he did it seemed like it was happening real slow.
Felt so friendly too.
Like we knew each other.
I looked at him and tried to silently communicate, “This. Sucks.”
But I couldn’t tell if it worked.
Couldn’t tell if I’d thought — This. Sucks — or if the kid in the wheelchair put the thought inside my head.
That would be terrible.
I stared at him and thought — No, you will NOT control me.
He continued sucking his thumb, the thumb that should’ve been over the keyboard controls of his wheelchair.
When does it end.
I looked back at the newspaper.
I liked to have a newspaper on the train so no one would talk me.
It wasn’t the only guard against interaction, but definitely the best.
Staring at a newspaper for a long time seemed normal — but staring at any other object on the train for a long period didn’t.
If you just stared at something without words on it, someone would eventually fuck with you.
They’re here to fuck with me — I thought.
The tension of feeling perfectly fine with just staring at anything, versus other people fucking with you.
Such bad tension!
Let me show you how a real man endures bad tension.
Been doing that a lot lately, adding, “Let me show you how a real man (does something),” to a lot of my thoughts or conversations.
Like, yesterday my girlfriend went to walk across the street before we had a walk signal and I held her back and said, “Let me show you how a real man obeys traffic law.”
In the newspaper there was one last item in the crime blotter, presented in the form of a giant quote with the story beneath in concise form.
The quote was from someone who witnessed a stabbing outside a bar in Rogers Park.
The quote read: “Yeah this guy came up, and was going to give him (the victim) a hug,and then he (the stabber) says, ‘Hey, what’s up,’ and stabbed him in the back.”
So — someone randomly approached someone else outside a bar and said, “Hey, what’s up,” then offered a hug, then stabbed the person as the hug was accepted.
I sat there terrified.
Why would anyone accept some random hug.
I’d never accepted a random hug in my life.
And never would!
What the fuck.
Who am I to deny.
I’d take the first one offered by anyone right now — even if I saw the person holding a giant knife behind his/her back.
Even if the person ended up stabbing me, I’d take a deep breath and put my mouth by his or her ear and say, “I knew you’d do this. I knew it, sweetheart. And, well, I still thank you for the hug.”
I turned the page.
There was an article about a television show where people competed by losing weight.
I closed the newspaper and put it on the ground.
Welcome to your new home.
The train made a stop at Damen Street and the kid in the mechanized wheelchair exited, pushed out by his mother.
Thumb in his mouth still.
He did the same wave — keeping his eyes forward.
Pushed away, waving.
Signaling, “Laaaaater, asshole.”
And I realized that part of my problem was I visibly resembled an adult.
People viewed me as an adult but I was just shit.
I always expected it to happen, to make like, a popping or dinging sound when it did.
Newly twenty-nine years old and nowhere near anything different than ever before.
Not even youthful.
Just the same pile, moving around.
Shifting anxieties — moving a pile of lead around to different areas of the same giant, bare room.
To then realize I’ve become the pile.
All just one time period.
One big now.
Rapidly moving away from any kind of connection.
I could imagine borders around periods of my life to make it seem like I’d become a different person, but that would just be a failure to see there was no more changing or nearness of change for the person either side of those imagined borders.
Not going to shower today. (Third day in a row, yeah!)
What if I just donated all my organs and everything useful about me right now, even the few good thoughts I’d had.
What if I walked into a hospital and said, “I’m going to kill myself anyway, you want my shit or not, come on” — then wait a second and say, “Come on, talk to me talk to me let’s go.”
I saw myself entering the hospital and confidently walking up to the front desk, resting my elbow on the counter.
“Yeah, come on, let’s see a doctor, sweetheart,” I’d say, regardless of the front desk worker’s gender. And I’d be snapping, “Come on come on.” Then, even if the employee was talking to me, say, “Talk to me here, come on.”
Let me show you how a real man sits on the train and stares, uninterested, briefly able to visualize his body as hollowed out of all its operative parts.
In a different row of seating an old man sat with the back of his skull against the metal headrest bar, waking up with each bump.
He kept trying to resist sleep but would then fall asleep.
Yes, it’s ok, old man.
You’ve earned it.
It’s time to sleep.
I am with you.
Dream about us holding hands — floating up and up and up and yelling and laughing the whole time.
Dream about me performing surgery on you, salting your beating heart (why not).
The old man kept waking up and going to sleep.
You’re not missing anything.
I’ll wake you up if something happens.
I’ll tell you when to get off the train.
We won’t forget your stop.
I sat there thinking about which of his bones I could probably break with my bare hands.
I compiled a list.
Arrived at the Wilson Street stop in Uptown Chicago.
And yeah if people had access to my thoughts and feelings, I’d be asked to live on a rock in outer space — one with a long tether to a building in Chicago if any of my friends (just kidding) wanted to come visit.
Going through the turnstile, I heard two people by the ticket machine.
One said, “ — and really, that’s the bottom line.”
I wanted to ask what the bottom line was since I’d missed that part.
Hadn’t heard what he said right before it.
Because if I knew where the bottom line was, it’d be easy to avoid it, or jump over it, or do whatever you do to it.
Exiting out onto the street in hundred-degree weather, I got shot in the face and died.
Didn’t even really hear it because my head was immediately all over the sidewalk.
That didn’t happen.
I just walked down the street, sweating.
Passed an old man, bald but with long hair on the sides and back.
He had one arm.
Hunched over and limping down the sidewalk, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
Saying, “Buhhhhgghhhnnnnn — ahhhhhmmhh.”
That was the first person I saw in Uptown this morning.
Next I saw a woman sitting on the single step to an apartment building, right along the sidewalk.
She was in her fifties.
She sat with her knees together, feet spread.
She wore a winter coat in the hundred-degree heat.
She looked up at me, then put her head back down, face to palms.
The hair on the back of her head stuck up in spikes like it’d been rubbed a lot until it knotted together.
I could see her scalp.
She looked up at me.
The wind made her hair float around her head for a few seconds and she said, “Fif-ty cents,” real slow.
She only had the front four teeth on the top and bottom of her mouth and they looked like they were covered in caramel. “Fif-ty cents,” the teeth slowly came together like insect pincers.
I thought — Summer is weird because I always forget that it happens and what it’s like when it does happen and then it happens and I remember.
Always surprisingly unique and lovely.
This summer I’m going to kill myself — I thought.
And felt confident I would.
And confidence is all I need — I thought.
Honestly though, at some point, it would be my time to get shot.
Every couple days/weeks someone got shot in the area.
I awaited it eagerly.
It would define me.
Definition: Shithead shot dead on the street, found with receipt from a four dollar and fifty-three cents purchase at a gas station in his pocket.
Sometimes I’d be walking down the street and get a sense that it was about to happen.
That it was my day.
That the universe had arranged itself perfectly around this very day, for me to get shot.
That the universe’s creation supported one final moment in a long series of other seemingly important moments, and it involved bullets in my head and chest.
And all I’d have to do is relax and allow the bullets into my body.
Focus my mind on it happening.
Sustain the focus and let it finish.
I’d take the first shot, the next shot, multiple shots, spreading across my chest in a series of bloody holes.
And no disagreement.
I’d be no different.
Just put my hands over the bloody holes in my shirt and say, “Hey, you ruined my shirt man.”
Bleeding to death.
Like to get me some of that action.
“Like to get me some of that action” was a phrase I recently started using.
I started saying after I saw this cop the other day.
I wanted to ask the cop how much money was made through drugs every year in Chicago, then when he approximated something, I was going to slap my hands together and rub them a little, saying, “Like to get me some of that action.”
Out front of the apartment building that shares an alley with mine, my friend(?) the maintenance man dragged two giant bags of garbage, sweating.
He said, “Wassap, my frent.”
He looked at both bags of garbage.
“Too much,” he said. “Too much garbetch. S’too hot for garbetch. I’m taking it outside, my man.”
He was shrugging and smiling too.
I slapped my hands together and said, “Like to get me some of that action.”
He laughed, gesturing towards me with the garbage again.
He pretty much always laughed no matter what I said.
Which is a weird thing to repeatedly happen between two people.
Because sometimes the things I said didn’t warrant laughter (I think) and it was always a little stunning and depressing.
Can’t help that it felt that way, but it did.
It always did.
Fated to feel certain ways.
All my fates outlived — I thought.
Tired all the time.
I went through the alley after holding the dumpster lids open for the maintenance man.
Someone had left a microwave out.
There was a handwritten note on a ripped piece of paper taped to the microwave.
The note read, “I still work!”
I still work — I thought.
I still work, motherfucker.
Which one of your motherfuckers thought I stopped working.
Who thought I stopped working.
Oh no no.
Because I didn’t.
I never stopped working.
You thought I stopped.
You actually thought that.
And went on with your lives.
You still worked, thinking I didn’t.
But I do still work.
I still work and I want you to know that.