Pygmy, Chuck Palahniuk

<em class="BookTitle">Pygmy</em>, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2009, 241 pages, C$29.95, ISBN 978-0-385-66629-9

Ever since discovering Chuck Palahniuk’s brand of outrageous fiction a decade ago, I have sometime wondered what it would take for me to really dislike one of his books.  Once you’re suitably jaded at the violence, perversion and generally antisocial behaviour of his novels, it’s hard to raise an eyebrow at his ever-increasing outrageousness.  Palahniuk is a professional provocateur, and there’s an ongoing game between him and his readers to see who blinks first.

Now, with Pygmy, I know what makes me blink… and it turns out to be bad grammar.

From the distance of a plot summary, there’s little in Pygmy to scare away Palahniuk’s usual fans: As the novel begins, a young trained assassin from an unspecified totalitarian regime lands in America to be adopted by a typical American family.  But this turns out to be one facet of Operation Havok, a plan to place sleeper agents in American cities where they can directly attack the Midwest way of life.  Our narrator knows everything worth knowing about America, Americans and how to kill them: He’s got intricate martial arts training, the ability to smell people down to their most intimate secrets and the equivalent of a post-graduate degree in terrorism.  Now imagine him dealing with a typical High School and you can imagine the fun.  Raised in a totalitarian regime to despise everything America stands for, it’s not a surprise if our narrator describes suburban life in utterly alien terms.

It wouldn’t be a Palahniuk novel without the usual amount of blood, sex and over-the-top personal behaviour.  Never mind the adoptive mother’s unquenchable passion for vibrators: Barely three chapters into Pygmy, our narrator takes revenge on a bully by brutally sodomizing him –thus unleashing a latent homosexual passion that, once spurned, leads to a high school shooting midway through.  This is fairly tame material for Palahniuk readers, who have come used to far more disturbing stuff.  It helps that Palahniuk never forgets to be intensely (if darkly) funny in most of what he writes: Pygmy has a splendid opportunity to comment on modern Americana and makes the most out of it.  Perhaps the best sequence of the book is a Model United Nations featuring a bunch of horny teenagers, leading to such instant-classic lines as “Sri Lanka says Afghanistan has the biggest crush and could totally jump the bones of Morocco.” [P.84]

But one of the reasons why this sequence works is that you can actually understand much of it.  Otherwise, Pygmy is narrated in approximate broken English, a stylistic choice which quickly goes from odd to exasperating.  Eventually, as the narrator develops his own way of describing suburban normalcy, we’re asked to decode paragraphs such as this one:

For official record, additional reside aboard bench cushion vast breathing cow, host father.  Twitching chicken, host mother.  Dual host parent unconscious splayed wide limbs spread, neck muscles lolling heads loose until rest own shoulders, lips loose, trickling long ropes translucent saliva.  Unconscious, breathing prolonged liquid inhales, loud sputtering exhales. [P.101-102]

This is irritating enough in small doses; now imagine an entire 240-pages book of it.  Reading Pygmy gave me horrible flashbacks to my abortive attempts to read James Joyce: my eyes skipping from one familiar word to another and my brain rejecting any attempts at making sense of the sentences, eventually resolving meaning from loose associations and accumulated context.  It’s unpleasant like little of Palahniuk’s fiction has been so far –and I kind of liked “Guts”.

Add to that the usual Palahniuk recurring motifs used with ever-lessening effect (Repeating periodical table elements?  Now you’re reaching), the uneasy tension between the satire and the dirt-serious mechanisms of indoctrination, the too-brief usage of the book’s best character (a “cat sister” worth an entire book by herself), the often-lazy satire and the flaws of the book don’t accumulate as much as they multiply… and the result seems to confirm Palahniuk’s sliding standing ever since 2007’s Rant.  There are rewards in this novel, but they’re slight and unpleasant to decode.  Maybe it was a good thing if Pygmy waited a year in my to-read pile before being revealed as a disappointment: Now I can jump over to follow-up Tell-All and hope that it gets better in a hurry.

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