I have to come clean. I reviewed Chuck Palahniuk’s last book, Snuff, for Night Times and was not honest about it. I didn’t like that book, but I didn’t want to put down one of my (still) favorite modern authors. It is physically painful for me to write this review, because I really love Chuck’s writing. I just finished Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon last night, and I’m telling you now: read that book instead of Pygmy.
The marketing department at Doubleday needs to be slapped in the face. This book is pitched as “The Manchurian Candidate meets South Park—Chuck Palahniuk’s finest novel since the generation-defining Fight Club,” which is a bald-faced lie. A tag like that aims this book at a high school-aged male readership. But, given what the marketing people had to work with, I can’t say that I blame them.
Pygmy is the story of agent number 67, who is sent with a group of others to the U.S. from a totalitarian country posing as foreign exchange students. They are really members of “Operation Havoc,” whose goal is to bring down the infrastructure of the U.S. Though he has a number of hand-to-hand combat moves at his disposal: the “flying giant stork death kick,” the “barracuda deadly eye gouge,” the “whirling wolverine,” etc., for the sake of the successful execution of Operation Havoc, he cannot use them against his host family: cow father, chicken mother, and pig dog brother. Along the way, agent number 67 develops a mission of his own, to impregnate his host sister, cat sister, with his “weapon.” He surprises himself with his own restraint:
“Could be flash-fire-quick instant. Wham-crack. Bone elbows spear-pointed sharp bent to soar, Soaring Eagle Double Strike, bonk-conk, to left-right temple soft spots of cat sister forehead. Hard hit, zing-crunch, to hammer through layer of black hair. Could be, pry. Force open, dry, all friction, all peel of tender membrane until humpy-humpy dripping head of weapon wedge room in virgin slit of vagina muscle [. . .]. Perhaps true profound affection defined by no entering vagina without consent” (111).
The form of this book works against it. Each chapter is a dispatch to agent number 67’s home base, and is written in a broken English dialect. All through the book’s 241 pages, I couldn’t get used to it. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (written entirely in Scottish dialect) was easier to get close to than Pygmy.
Palahniuk has been treading the same water and using the same devices while trying to branch out with different forms, and it just doesn’t work. The one tool that really makes him great and sets him apart from other writers is his voice—his mixture of short, stark sentences in paragraphs with one long sentence and his dynamic of short and long paragraphs throughout each chapter—it's missing because of Pygmy's form.
I’ll be the first one to tell you that I have none of the success that Palahniuk has. I think he’s aware of his own limitations as a writer, and he’s one of the most humble authors that I’ve ever met. On the Haunted tour in 2006, he stayed behind after his reading in Kansas City for three hours, meeting each fan, posing for photos, and autographing books. He gave me encouragement about the novel I was writing at the time, and talked with me for almost ten minutes about what he’d learned after writing Invisible Monsters (written before Fight Club, but published later). For his kindness, I will always buy and read his books.
But, that sends the wrong message to Chuck. I haven’t liked Chuck's novels since Diary, and liked Haunted only on the strength of the story “Guts.” First editions are expensive, and buying them out of loyalty (while at the same time knowing I will be disappointed) is a real drag. Please don’t do this to me again, Chuck.
Part of me thinks that Palahniuk’s annual deadline to Doubleday is the reason why his latest books seem so half-baked. He’s a popular author and he has a loyal readership who will buy his books no matter what [this writer raises his hand], so why not take a year off or longer and really flesh out the next book? Even in his latest books, the concepts and situations are interesting. It just seems like they aren’t given enough time to be everything that they could be.
Palahniuk fans bought the book already, but if you were on the fence about it or haven’t read any of his work before, then don’t bother with Pygmy. I wasted a few hours of my life reading it, and I hope you don’t do the same.
I love you, Chuck, but this book was terrible.
(Pygmy is $24.95 at Borders)