The Pickup Artist

Terry Bisson

Tor / 240 pages / 1st edition 7 April 2001

ISBN: 0312874030

The thought has crossed everyone’s mind, at least for a second; what if the brain’s capacity is limited? What if the next phone number you automatically memorise pushes out your knowledge of the Children’s Crusade. The lyrics to that annoyingly persistent pop song takes the place of the table of elements. Is there only so much room? After all, there is finite space on this planet. It’s a theory the Bureau of Arts and Entertainment thinks is so, and it’s up to Shapiro, the Pickup Artist, to enforce the law and keep the crowding down to a minimum.

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Thanks to the violent efforts of a group of revolutionaries, the world has come to realize that the grand masters of the arts are standing in the way of the would-be masters of the present and the future. In order to make room for these upcoming geniuses, the work of artists of the past must be removed from sight and mind. Shapiro and his colleagues do just that: it’s their job to collect art whose time has come so that the art and the artist can be effectively erased.

True, it doesn’t sound like the greatest occupation, but it’s kind of an honour to enforce the law, and it’s a job, after all. That seems to be enough justification for Shapiro until a particular find sends him off on a quest that will turn him into an enemy of his own agency. It’s a journey unlike any you’ve experienced before, across a landscape both alien and disconcertingly familiar. How and if Shapiro makes it through the chase provides the tension throughout The Pickup Artist.

Comparisons to Fahrenheit 451 are inescapable, but readers will find the differences significant. The Pickup Artist is heavily laced with wry humour and inside jokes about pop culture and the slavish worship of the “classics.” The characters Shapiro links up with along the way are the kind of people you wish only existed in fiction — quirky, outlandish, and larger- or smaller-than life.

One particular character embodies the best in all of us and provides a flawless mirror for the decline around her, all without speaking a word. It’s a heart-rending performance that imbues Shapiro with the dose of humanity his society and his job has leeched away.

Will it come to a point where people honestly believe the past must be erased to make room for the present? Some people want to rewrite the past now. College graduates complain that there is no room for them in the work force. Censors want to obliterate anything too challenging or controversial. With book burnings and Jesse Helms in our history, how can we honestly say that a scenario like the The Pickup Artist is really so far-fetched? Just keep telling yourself that.

In the meantime, make the most of your reading freedom and indulge yourself in the wild and unpredictable world of The Pickup Artist. Really, has Bisson ever disappointed you?