Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

I first became aware of Chuck Palahniuk in the run-up to the release of the movie Fight Club. I remember there was a lot of buzz about Palahniuk being the coolest new writer around, which is why David Fincher, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton were adapting his first published book. I ended up devouring the novel in a single sitting, and, when the movie came out, all the right people hated it. I loved it and still do.

Since then, I have read every book Palahniuk has published. I think Invisible Monsters is a better book than Fight Club, and Survivor and Choke are close runners-up. But the novel I most admire is Lullaby, which, to me is a perfect melding of Palahniuk's preoccupations, which include sarcastic asides, cultural criticism, and pulpy, melodramatic plots filtered through unreliable narrators.

According to others, Palahniuk writes something called "transgressive fiction," which sounds like a marketing tag. From what I gather, it's fiction that features characters who actively transgress the norms of society, engaging in activities that are taboo, like in Rant, where time travel allows a character to become his own grandfather and father. Perhaps the most extreme case of Palahniuk's transgressive fiction is the story "Guts," which later appeared as a section of the novel Haunted. In "Guts," several cases of "masturbation accidents" are related by a narrator, whose own "accident" is particularly lurid and gory, involving both cannibalism and inadvertent inbreeding. It's all very graphic and disturbing. Appropriately so.

Beyond the more prurient aspects of his fiction (such as in Snuff, where a porn star is trying to set a new world record by having sex with 600 men in a row, one of whom might be her son), Palahniuk's work is also characterized by its dark, sarcastic humor. I have actually laughed out loud while reading him. Really. But his fiction is definitely what the MPAA would not hesitate to give an "R" rating, if you know what I mean.

In his new novel, Tell-All, Chuck Palahniuk has consciously appropriated Billy Wilder's classic 1950 satire Sunset Boulevard, along with pieces of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, running them past the funhouse-mirror of Palahniuk's wit. This is a fittingly metafictional ploy for a writer whose most comfortable pose is as cultural critic, and it allows Palahniuk to riddle his prose with pop references and biting, ironic quips, such as when the narrator says that a woman "remains among the generation of women who feel that the most sincere form of flattery is the male erection."

In essence, Tell-All retells the story of Sunset Boulevard, although with more than a few twists. As in Wilder's movie, the center of Tell-All is a fading actress being tended by a companion, though this companion is someone who sees herself more as puppetmaster than maidservant, with all the attendant simmering resentment such a relationship would naturally engender. It is this sharp-tongued spinster who narrates the novel, detailing her love/hate relationship with her boss. When a younger suitor starts sniffing around the actress, the spinster smells a rat. Or so it seems.

Katherine Kenton, the violet-eyed former star, seems to live life at the center of Hollywood society, attending star-studded dinner parties, even though her leading-lady days seem to have ended. Almost every paragraph of Tell-All is peppered with bold-faced celebrity names, some famous and some obscure (and some anachronistic), and it soon becomes clear that the true subject of this novel is celebrity itself, as embodied by his version of Lillian Hellman, the famous playwright and infamous exaggerator. In Tell-All, Hellman is a kind of Hollywood superhero, displaying extraordinary talents as writer, director, actor, and critic. She is, metaphorically, Hollywood itself.

In fact, with Hellman acting as a kind of narrative nemesis to Katherine Kenton, who longs for another leading role, Tell-All highlights the voracious nature of celebrity -- with ahistorical anecdotes portraying the show-biz treatment of everything, from World War II to John Glenn's orbits in the Project Mercury program's Friendship 7 capsule. Some of these anecdotes are hilarious. But not all of them.

Palahniuk is a writer who is deeply interested in surfaces and in how those surfaces are often at odds with what lies beneath them. This is why he so loves unreliable narrators and late-story plot twists. And nowhere is the disjunction between surface and depth more prevalent than in show business. So Palahniuk is mining a deep, rich vein with Tell-All.

But this is not to say that Tell-All is a deep book. It really isn't. It's more of a theme-park ride: enjoyable but slight. It's not as good as Lullaby but it's nowhere near as bad as Diary. For the legions of Palahniuk fans out there, it's a worthy addition to his growing canon, and I have to recommend it if you're in the mood for heavy helpings of irony and sarcasm, sprinkled with the sparkly dust of movie magic.

a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

1 comment:

  1. I'm in the middle of this right now and it feels like Palahniuk is raping my brain. I didn't think a book could get harder to read than Pygmy but this one's succeeding. I still read it though because, well, it's Chuck. After Lullaby and Choke I'll read anything he does for all time.