The Dehumanizing Effects of Sam Pink’s Person
Comedian Tig Notaro has a stand-up bit about walking down the street and passing a man who says to her, “Ah, them a little titties. I thought you was a man.” Relaying the anecdote onstage, she observes, “OK if you think that and OK if you say that—to yourself. But that thought had to go through several layers of filters in his mind and a checklist. And he still decided, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna need to say this.’”
The truth is we’re all prone to inappropriate thoughts. Most of us just have the sense to restrict random bursts of potentially damaging and/or incriminating insight to harmless interior monologues. Can’t make out a stranger’s gender? That’s cool. No need to announce your confusion. Curious how that attractive gal appears naked? Take a quick mental pic before you creep her out with your serial-killer gaze. Deep down, everyone is a bit deranged, which is why Sam Pink’s protagonist in Person is slightly endearing. His first-person narrative is peppered with admirable ideas (the creation of a Worldwide Friendship Mandate everyone must sign to create a harmonious society), relatable impulses (“I want badly to take off my clothes and walk down the street, but then I remember the legal requirement of being clothed”) and observations (“I find myself looking at the words ‘San Francisco’ on her sweatshirt and the odd looking breasts that are probably behind”). But for every reasonable jab at ordinary conformity there’s a troubling build-up of rage and self-destructive desire that makes Person incredibly unsettling.
In other words, he’s a great example of why I carry Mace.
Pink’s novel takes place in the biting winter of Chicago and while a handful of its narrator’s unhealthy instincts could be chalked up to seasonal depression, other brushes with his brain point to chronic, anti-social psychosis. When he shaves his head and nicks the skin, he’s Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. “I just stood there looking at myself in the mirror, wearing only my underwear—my head bleeding down my neck and face, my hand holding a blue plastic razor with pink foam all over it. It felt really sexual. It felt like practice.”
What exactly he’s practicing for is uncertain. Pink peppers the text with alternative realities separated by chapter breaks, his character trying out different versions of his daily routine, none of which is terribly ideal or interesting. His daydreams mimic a lackluster reality involving neither a job nor hobbies nor meaningful relationships—a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure minus climactic thrills. The individual he interacts with most, his roommate, is a frequent guest star of these imagined scenarios. In one chapter, the roommate at first jokingly and then dead-seriously offers to pay Person to kill his father. Then, they hug. In the following chapter, the roommate simply sits at the table lamenting his calculator’s dead battery. No hugs. No intimacy. It’s sad, but not tragic.
The man-child anti-hero is unmotivated, an unlikeable slacker who can’t even show up for a second interview as a bagger for a local grocery. He sleeps with his downstairs neighbor but their sporadic trysts are utterly devoid of passion. Person’s back jacket claims “You will read this book and remember why you mainly read books that have sex in them,” but none of the so-called sex scenes approach erotic. They are sterile, depressing and gross, as when the neighbor scrapes flakes of skin off his head post-coitus. Mostly, though, they’re downright boring.
Pink does a fine job of establishing despair and ennui through minimalist prose that parallels Person’s internal void, however just as the character embodies a “so what” attitude, so too does the reader. If only the author turned the heat up in the bedroom, or made his character follow through with threats of violence—whether in life or in fantasy—it would be a far more entertaining and meaningful ride. We might benefit in life from following certain social mores and keeping our mouths shut, but fiction is another matter. Whatever the author’s intent, it pays to skip the filters and provoke enough to captivate our attention because unlike Person we have things to do, places to see, people we want to meet.
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