TITLE: The King of Pain
AUTHOR: Seth Kaufman
PUBLISHER: Sukuma Books
AVAILABILITY: Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon US (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Barnes & Noble (Nook e-book), Barnes & Noble (paperback), The Copia (e-book)
APPROXIMATE LENGTH: 296 pages
Recommended for fans of satire and dark comedies, as well as fans of reality television.
The King of Pain satirizes the colorful and absurd world of reality television through the eyes of Rick Salter, one of Hollywood’s biggest players. It also presents a number of fable-like short stories about prisons via the book-within-a-book that Salter reads, A History of Prisons. These stories are self-contained vignettes depicting various prison experiences from around the world.
While not a page-turner in the plot-driven, action-after-action sense, The King of Pain maintains a fast pace through its smooth and efficient writing style. In addition, the drama of the reality show Rick produces, which he describes in summarizes bit by bit in his narrative, leaves a reader wanting know what happens next much like a television show would. I sped through this one in less than two days and was a little sad when it was over.
Rick’s chapters are told from his first person present point of view. He tells the story as it happens. The reader learns about his reality show through his flashbacks and memories. The short stories he reads in A History of Prisons are written in third person limited except for one first person narrative.
Rick “the Prick” Salter is not a very nice man. So when he wakes up alone in his big, empty mansion trapped under his hefty home entertainment system, the only person he can count on to rescue him is his housekeeper—who won’t arrive for at least 48 hours. With no clue as to how he ended up in this predicament, all Rick can do is reflect on his recent dealings with his reality show, “The King of Pain,” and read a book that’s fallen near him, A History of Prisons by one Seth Kaufman.
Through Rick’s story, Kaufman skewers the world of reality television. “The King of Pain” puts its contestants through torturous trials—starvation, sleep deprivation, physical pain—and scores them based on their endurance and audience votes. Essentially, Rick—or Kaufman—has dreamed up a show in which all pretenses are abandoned and reality programming is distilled into its most basic element: drama through human suffering. Rick is well aware that humans have always held a perverse fascination with witnessing the travails of other people.
The stand-alone short stories that make up the book-within-a-book A History of Prisons read like fables, each painting a short but sweet vignette of one person’s prison experience and highlighting elements such as karma, kismet, and irony. The Chinese dissident who writes letters for an illiterate cellmate. The protestor who goes on hunger strike. The African prison guard who finds the tables turned on him.
Meanwhile, in the “real” world, Rick has found the tables turned on him. Through his reality show, he has become a master of torture, putting the show’s contestants through hell in order to captivate an audience. Now he’s the one in hell, immobilized, dehydrated, and helpless, and we, the readers, are the audience. The image of Rick trapped under the weight of his own home entertainment system is a powerful symbol of how consumerism and the media imprisons us all. There’s an element of the metaphysical in this book—we, the readers, are in a way the audience of “The King of Pain” show. As Rick outlines each episode, one cannot help wondering how each contestant will fare. It’s easy to be disgusted by the show’s shamelessness, and yet impossible to avoid being pulled in.
While The King of Pain is primarily a dark roasting of the media, it’s also an ode to books. A History of Prisons keeps Rick sane through his predicament by transporting him to other worlds, subtly stirring up his thoughts and making him reflect, and bringing him company through the characters’ and author’s voices. One particularly powerful story within A History of Prisons depicts a futuristic culture in which everyone is absorbed in digital devices and the entertainment industry has been killed by pirating. Two kids, deprived of their devices, discover the lasting joys of reading and appreciate books for their timelessness. As one of the characters points out, gadgets die and digital entertainment is “less than air,” but all you need to read a book is a source of light.
The King of Pain is a book with messages, wrapped in stories and sprinkled with wit, bound together by the themes of imprisonment and human endurance. It’s essentially two books in one: Rick’s story and the book he reads to pass the time while waiting for rescue. Rick is trapped physically, emotionally, and morally. When we meet him, he’s an arrogant, full-of-himself media king who’s willing to do anything and everything to advance his ambitions. He ignores the voices of reason that tell him that he’s going to far, unable to see past his show’s high ratings and what that means for revenue. But his amorality has left him lonely, and he repeatedly expresses his regret for having allowed Amanda, the woman who gave him the History of Prisons book, to walk out of his life.
Eventually, unable to do anything but think, Rick gains perspective and becomes aware of the perverse world he lives in. Although he is undoubtedly a jerk, one cannot help but sympathize with him as a character. His sharp first person narration brings him to life, and the obtuseness with which he expresses himself shows that he isn’t an evil or cruel person, simply one who has been morally compromised and distorted by the madness of Hollywood that surrounds him. It’s easy to judge him for his brashness, and at the same time, easy to see why he acted the way he did. Who wouldn’t want to be the mastermind behind a hit show like “The King of Pain,” or, for that matter, “The Biggest Loser,” “Fear Factor,” or “Survivor?”
In The King of Pain, Kaufman has created a brilliant satire that entertains as it sends its message. It’s unique, original, and innovative, presenting commentary on modern culture while being darkly entertaining. I was so drawn into this book that I flew through it in less than two days, unable to put it down.
THE NITPICKY STUFF
There are a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible number of typos.
This book contains adult language. There are a few violent scenes, but these are described quickly and in relatively vague detail, leaving out the gruesome parts. There are a handful of scenes depicting sexual situations, but nothing explicit.
Seth Kaufman resides in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. He was the Editorial Director of TV Guide Online, and has also been a Page Six reporter for the New York Post. For the last 14 years he has been an eCommerce executive. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Daily News, Vibe, Star, The Globe and many other publications. The King of Pain is his first novel.
RELATED: An Interview with Seth Kaufman