Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chuck Palahniuk's "Snuff"

Chuck Palahniuk's new book came out today.

Palahniuk is the author of nine weird novels exploring similar themes of disaffection, self-destruction, obsessive detail and obsession generarlly, including cult-classic "Fight Club," and "Choke," which is soon to be a movie.

"Snuff" takes place backstage on the set of a porno movie gangbang staged by an aging star named Cassie Wright, who is seeking to break a world record for the most sex acts in a single day. To this end, she's procured, through an open casting call, six hundred men to have sex with her. The book takes place backstage at the gangbang, as these men wait their turn to fuck under the hot lights, with rumors circulating that Wright intends to attain porno/urban legend immortality and create a record that will last forever by getting herself fucked to death.

The four major characters are an over the hill porn stud who is batting cleanup, so to speak, as number 600; a 19 year-old kid, number 72, who believes that he is the long-lost child the woman is rumored to have given up for adoption, a disgraced television actor, number 137, who was publicly outed as a homosexual, and Wright's booking agent and personal assistant who is tasked with wrangling all the meat. The book makes an ironically pointed statement at the beginning about the objectification of women through pornography, because, to each of these characters, Wright is essentially an object, and she represents something different to each of them.

Body grotesquerie is Palahniuk's metier, and this sort of subject matter is his natural habitat. He's fascinated with the things that ooze out of us and the things on us that ooze, with orifices and wounds and infections, with blood and pus and spunk and shit. He meshes ironic detachment and explicit description, and walks the line between disgust and excitement.

His characters are always most alive when they are pummeling each other to hamburger or fucking or popping pimples or masturbating. When they wax expository, the author's voice never seems to vanish, and the character's voice never seems to crystalize. Palahniuk is a wizard at honing descriptive language to create vivid imagery, and he's fond of complicated flashback-based narrative structures, but his interest in his characters often seems almost perfunctory; in this book, as in "Fight Club," he doesn't bother to even give them names. The characters become cyphers for the author.

This weakness crippled Palahniuk's "Haunted." The organizational conceit of that book was that a bunch of characters were locked together in a house after arriving for a sham writer's workshop, and each of them tells his or her story. But, though some of the stories were, individually, very compelling the novel didn't really work, because all the stories sounded like they were written by Chuck Palahniuk.

In "Snuff," similarly the characters alternate in the role of narrator, but they never fully distinguish themselves from each other, and you always see the puppetmaster working the strings. For example, Palahniuk is good at coming up with vivid metaphors, such as an encapsulating comparison of the whole gang-bang enterprise to wiping one's ass from back to front, and accidentally smearing shit all over one's balls. But he puts this observation into the mouth of a character who shouldn't be smart enough or perceptive enough to come up with it, nor should he be disaffected enough from the events to make such an analogy.

The multiple narrators conceit is a way for him to get out of the head of a single character, so the character isn't viewed exclusively on his own terms. But having multiple narrators who are all Chuck Palahniuk is more jarring than a single voice. Palahniuk often resorts to characters doing things to themselves that externalize internal turmoil that they would not necessarily put in words, and, often, he imposes injuries or deformities or physical transformations on his characters which serve as ironic or symbolic statements by the author

This is a central Palahniuk motif. In "Invisible Monsters," the fashion model protagonist manifested the turmoil simmering beneath her perfect exterior by blowing off her lower jaw with a shotgun. In "Fight Club," the masochistic narrator beat a hole in his face in underground fights so his hung open like a jack-o-lantern. In "Lullaby" the protagonist, wounded because he came from a broken home, stomped barefoot on tiny glass models of houses, until his foot was a mass of pus-oozing infection and glass house bits.

Perhaps the best example is "Choke," in which the protagonist, a sex addict who becomes convinced he is the second-coming of Christ, loses a latex sex toy up his ass, obstructing his bowel, so, as his delusions of grandeur escalate, he literally becomes increasingly full of shit.

In "Snuff," the grooming rituals of the aging porn-studs stands similarly, as a contrast to the deterioration of their souls, so they shave and wax their body hair until they bleed, and stain their skin with fake-tan until it crusts over on their fingers and smears onto everything they touch. And the book's conclusion, which I won't divulge, arguably tops "Choke" in physically transforming the characters into symbolic commentaries on themselves.

"Snuff" also continues Palahniuk's habit of ornamenting his fiction with oddball trivia nuggets. In this installment, we get an impromptu lesson in the symbology of prison tattoos, and the suicide habits and workplace-related injuries of movie stars.

All in all, it's a solid Palahniuk novel, but the author isn't exploring much here that's new.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

New York's homeless aren't the only parasites in the subway

Bloodsucking bedbugs have been observed in several subway stations. Those who promote public transportation as a green alternative to driving everywhere in a Hummer should be reminded that public transportation involves exposure not only to the public and their unpleasant odors and appearances, but also to the various ambient wildlife that dwells in their hair and clothes.

When informed by the NY Post reporter that bedbugs had been sighted on subway-station benches, one rider seated on a bench leapt to her feet shrieking. The real question is, why would she sit on that in the first place, when everyone except tourists knows that theose benches are soaked in urine? Dogs walk by them, and dogs have a natural compulsion to pee on everything. Bums sleep on them, and bums are notoriously incontinent, due to the they are frequently mentally-ill and passed out drunk. So sitting on a bench in a subway station is like using a urinal as a drinking fountain.

That's almost as dumb as putting the receiver of a pay telephone near your face.