Both comic and tragic, both a series of stories within stories and a long, treacherous journey toward redemption, Kaufman’s novel is a gruesome yet sharply funny portrayal of numerous types of torture and the bliss of release.
Though he is thoroughly aware that most everyone hates him, Rick Salter doesn’t quite care. With his reality television show called “The King of Pain,” which makes entertainment of torturing contestants, pushing them to their limits until they have a mental break down, Rick actually feels as though his friends, family, and co-workers have the right to hate him. But when he wakes up pinned beneath his home entertainment system and realizes no one will be there to rescue him for at least two days when the cleaner arrives, his only hope of surviving without going crazy thinking about how perhaps no one would particularly want to save him if they could is a collection of short stories by a one Seth Kaufman lying next to him. A gift from his assistant before she resigned, and paired with a cryptic note saying the stories are “meant” for him, A History of Prisons distracts Rick from the pain for a while, though as he becomes more involved in the stories, the note just seems more ambiguous.
Rick’s narcissistic yet light-hearted tone in the face of his predicament will pull you in right away, but there are many layers to the story that make this novel un-put-down-able. First and foremost is Rick’s imprisonment beneath his symbolic entertainment system; his difficulty in facing the facts and deal with his situation says a lot about his character, and as he dives into the book he has no choice but to read, he dives into other prisoners’ lives.
The ten short stories pulled from the text of Rick’s two-day stint are, by possessing intricate themes and individually developed characters, complete in their own right. While reading these stories—each taking place in some sort of prison, all across the globe—readers may feel as though they are trapped under that wall unit with Rick, trying to push the life-threatening circumstance from their mind and getting wrapped up in each story. “The Gizless Days of Thomas Binder” is perhaps the most absorbing and thought-provoking.
The third plotline of the novel, told in flashbacks—Rick’s pondering while he’s trapped with nothing better to do—is the story of “The King of Pain” and its participants. The contestants are a quirky bunch, some putting up personae for the camera, some only there to prove a point, and all attention-seeking and humorous. Readers may find themselves viewing the flashbacks scenes as a guilty pleasure, as they would a reality show; however, since the characters are starved, branded, and mentally tortured, you are not just turning pages to find out who will win and who will crack but to learn how this deeply flawed protagonist, Rick, will realize his mistakes and atone them.
On the surface, this novel is a satire on reality TV creators and hosts, but beneath the surface it is more than even a warning of what could lie ahead in the TV genre; it is also a discourse on empathy and the discovery of bliss and freedom after being trapped in a stifling mindset for far too long. With scathing humor and a clever revelation of plot, The King of Pain will excite those who find reality shows irritating and will perhaps incite a change of heart in those who believe they enhance society more than they demean it.