Touching from a distance: On Sam Pink’s Rontel

Reviewed in this essay: Rontel, by Sam Pink, Electric Literature, 2013.

One of the old canards people trot out when waxing (prematurely) on the creeping death of the publishing industry is that there’s just no way to sell books anymore, not when brick and mortar stores are on the wane and even the once future-proof e-reader already seems marked for death. Leave it to Sam Pink to simultaneously indulge and thumb his nose at the suggestion that it’s hard to sell fiction these days, a lament he’s answered with the unique offer to personally sext anyone who preorders his new e-book before its release on, what else, Valentine’s Day.

That book is Rontel, online journal Electric Literature‘s first novel. The Brooklyn-based quarterly is big on firsts, having already launched the first fiction magazine for iPhones in 2009, as well as the first short story delivered entirely in tweets, care of Rick Moody’s “Some Contemporary Characters.” While the fugitive nature of 140-character fiction seems antithetical to the novel, a genre we more typically associate with leisurely binging, Pink’s aesthetic of the fleeting and the dashed off makes Rontel an enjoyable hybrid, something to tuck into in spurts and to let evaporate in between. That’s not a criticism so much as a gentle acknowledgement of the book’s self-prescribed half-life: after all, Pink’s phone number will only be available for the first day of sale.

Like recent novels by fellow collectors of the ephemeral Jon McGregor and Toronto’s Zoe Whittall, Rontel is about a city, in this case Chicago, where our unnamed narrator roams after his girlfriend heads to work, taking in the urine scent of the subway, the banalities of abandoned daily newspapers, and the homespun tales of the one-eyed woman on the bench. There’s a hint of fellow Chicagoan and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s melancholy embrace of sad souls in poor places in Pink’s prose, albeit in a bawdier register. The sentences are short — each line of furtive dialogue a missive launched and usually lost between strangers in cramped public spaces.

Yet Pink’s Chicago is pricklier than this emphasis on missed encounters, to use the craigslist shorthand with which his urbanites are no doubt intimately familiar, might suggest. The narrator’s deadpan recalls the laconic surrealism of Mitch Hedburg. Consider his wish at one point that “someone on the train was watching me — and could hear me — so I could turn and stare straight forward and say, ‘everything is in place for the lunar harvest’ — and sit down and continue staring straightforward, smiling.” Some of these absurd pronouncements fall flat, but their spirit of mild provocation, of prodding for the sake of it, resonates for anyone who’s ever felt an ambivalent kinship with an uncouth stranger on a bus. Or, for that matter, for anyone who’s wondered what it might be like to sext the author of the book they’re reading.

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