Snuff, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2008, 197 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66468-4

Chuck Palahniuk has always been a writer defined by gross excess. So when he announced that Snuff was going to deal with the pornographic film industry, readers cringed in anticipation: what kind of novel would that turn out to be?

The fun with the book starts before even cracking it open: The striking cover art, dominated by an open lipsticked mouth, features letters carved with outlines of women and copulating couples. The theme carries inside, with end-papers making a good attempt at presenting the Kama Sutra’s top positions. The book itself is entirely printed in brown, dirty letters running for almost two hundred pages.

The content is initially up to the worst expectations: We find ourselves on the set of a pornographic film, where an aging porn-star is trying to set a record. There are six hundred men in the green room of the studio where the movie is being shot, and they are all expected to perform on her. Palahniuk, of course, doesn’t miss a detail as he describes the logistics of the event and the horrible consequences of double-dipping when unmentionable bodily fluids have to be managed with precision.

Four characters end up sharing the novel’s point-of-view: Mr. 600, a veteran porn actor; Mr. 72, a young kid with a sentimental streak; Mr. 137, with his mysterious past and even murkier intentions; and Sheila, the producer working hard to keep the show rolling. The interactions between the characters run deeper than expected: Palahniuk hasn’t chosen his viewpoint characters randomly.

As the novel progresses, a central complication emerges: The characters realize that this is meant to be the porn-star’s last film, that she means to die on camera –forever sealing her legacy and her world record. But nothing is ever so simple, and Palahniuk’s still got a few dramatic revelations up his sleeve. Stylistically, there’s a certain interest in the structure of the novel, which almost works as a one-set theater piece with no nudity; alas, flashbacks and a few last chapters taking us out of the warehouse and onto the set damage the restraint of that aspect of the book.

This is a very short novel: from quick word-count estimates, it can’t be more than 60,000 words long, and probably ends up much shorter than that. But even at that length, it feels a bit bloated and repetitive. Even though Palahniuk’s usual catchphrases are toned down (the closest ends up being the “…Back Door Dog Pile” titling motif that seems to dominate the cited porn film titles that aren’t puns or parodies of something else.), the novel seems to grind itself in place between the time the hook is explained and the moment where the characters reveal who they really are. The conclusion feels like a lame placeholder put there while waiting for a better idea.

That this is a joyless novel isn’t much of a revelation: Palahniuk’s dark humor may be entertaining, but it’s not the kind of thing to make you smile once the book is over. The emphasis on the pornographic industry carries its own problems: it’s almost by definition a field so shameless as to be un-parodiable, and what Palahniuk comes up to try to shock his readership isn’t even up to the industry’s own horror stories. So the reader ends up in a limbo where laughs, eroticism and interest are kept far away.

It’s certainly a Palahniuk novel, but it also ends up being one of his most disappointing, especially after the impact of his previous Rant. There’s an irony, I suppose, in the idea that a shock writer would be defeated by a shocking setting. But Snuff leaves the impression that it would have been tighter and more interesting had it been boiled down even further, either as a short story or an alternative theater play. Regular Palahniuk readers will enjoy it (since they know what they’re getting into), but this is not likely to be a book that will gain him new ones. In a way, Palahniuk has set himself up to fail: the book is too extreme for the average reader, too tame for the fan, and not showing anywhere near the new directions felt in Rant. A minor work, while everyone waits for the next one.

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