Doubleday Canada, 2010, 179 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66631-2
Sometimes I wonder how many books it takes for an author to get scratched off from my “buy on sight” list. I don’t have a definitive answer yet, but I will soon going to have another data point to consider if Palahniuk keeps going like that. I’m not sure what happened after Rant, but everything he’s done since then has been underwhelming: Snuff couldn’t out-weird its own porn-star inspiration and Pygmy was an unreadable mess. Tell-All manages to be a bit better than Pygmy, but not by much… and not enough to escape the feeling that Palahniuk may be due for an extended holiday.
The novel is written as a tell-all from a woman who has spent her life caring for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The stylistic devices that accompany this conceit are a deliberate appeal to movie-script lingo (“Act II, Scene One: For this next scene, we open with a booming, thundering chord from a pipe organ” [P.149]), direct addressing of the reader, repetition of a few barnyard noises, as well as the gossip-column-inspired boldfaced name-dropping of every new person, title, brand or group.
It’s a measure of how disappointing Tell-All can be that none of the devices seem all that original; that the story itself seems familiar; and that it all feels like a faded black-and-white copy of earlier Palahniuk novels. The opening sting of the book is “Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy kills girl?” and even then you can hear the weary sigh of fans realizing that Palahniuk hasn’t reached any deeper in the bag of plots that the one that drives nearly any romantic suspense ever made. A quick read through the book only confirms the impression: this is weak stuff and no amount of tepid stylistic tricks can masquerade that lack of interest.
The execution isn’t entirely dull, but that’s not really high praise coming so soon after the unreadable Pygmy. It’s not that Palahniuk has been lazy: The novel, taking place around 1960, is peppered by references to long-faded fifties stars. That does have its own educational value (it reflects badly on me that I had to look up Lillian Hellman to realize that she wasn’t a fictional character), but Tell-All’s historicity offers little other than plenty of whooshing references, wasted winks and further distancing from the novel. The appeal to nostalgia is undermined from the very first few pages by Palahniuk’s Gen-X sarcasm: I suppose that it makes sense to go back to pre-Technicolor days for a well-mannered story of fatal screen glamour, but he displays too little affection for the time and too much mean-spirited sniping to qualify for the nostalgia bonus.
For better or for worse, Palahniuk has conditioned his fans to expect more. Clocking in at a bit less than 200 pages, Tell-All feels both insubstantial and overblown. There isn’t much to gnaw upon, and at the same time it feels too long even midway through. It’s a short story that has been padded to (barely) novel-length… for which we’re supposed to pay thirty dollars. Clearly, Palahniuk’s entertainment-for-money ratio has declined precipitously in the past few years. A quick curious look at the novel’s Amazon rating shows three-stars-out-of-five (with a histogram that peaks at two-stars-out-of-five), which is really scraping the barrel as far as Amazon rankings go.
At some point, maybe now or maybe next book, it will be useful to start thinking about whether Palahniuk himself is in irreversible decline. His shock-shtick has peaked in Haunted, and one wonders if the young post-adolescent males most likely to go nuts for his books aren’t turning to uncensored online forums for savage satisfaction. Sometimes, a writer runs out of things to say and starts coasting on his reputation, and soon it will be appropriate to start wondering if Palahniuk is at that point.
But now, though, it’s enough that Tell-All is better than Pygmy, in much the same way that a clearly suicidal person has at least taken a step away from the ledge.