Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Look: Chuck Palahniuk's "Tell-All"

According to Chuck Palahniuk's Tell-All, a tell-all biography is written by sycophants who go about "vacuuming up the thorny anecdotes they'd need to flesh out two hundred pages." At least those muckrakers had anecdotes: this awful novel only has a repetitiously self-skewering "bizarre form of name-dropping Tourette's syndrome." The plot's obvious after the first three chapters (or "scenes," since this novel is sloppily written--like a treatment--by a character with delusions of the screen), but to spare you even that Sisyphean torment, here's the plot: Hazie Coogan, an obsessed fan in a maid's costume, carefully cultivates the image of her dithering film-star boss, Katherine Kenton, and plots to have her killed at the height of her "third act" in order to save her from the public vultures that would otherwise tear her (reputation) apart. The ride involves poking fun at Broadway musicals and Lillian Hellman; at rich, younger paramours and their ulterior motives; snobbish celebrities and their empty speech.

That ride, however, is not a fun one. Tell-All is a lie that doesn't even come close to telling a truth: it's an braying, repetitious, inane satire--of itself as much as the sort of audience that might read it. It is a book that is lost in its own devices: Act I's over-explained puns (divorced "happily-never-afters," suicidal "marry-kiri," and adoption-crazed "offspring shopping," to name a few), Act II's book-selling luridness ("subsequent to strenuous oral contact with my romantic meat shaft...," "abandoning the sodden glory of her puckered shelter, I spewed my steaming tribute, gush upon jetting gush, the pearlescent globules of my adoration and profound admiration..."), and Act III's rushed and rote Hollywood ending (not the good kind). These devices pass for description, with a sense of time given to us by the song currently playing on all the radios, and characterization expressed in vagaries like these: "Mervyn LeRoy spread the rumor that I am the secret love child of Wally Beery and his frequent costar Marie Dressler." Actual descriptions--and flat-out exposition--repeat, endlessly, sometimes within the same paragraph. The few lines that actually work are swallowed up by all the yawning emptiness. ("The entire effect, insular and silent as sleeping tucked deep inside Mae West's vagina.")

Tell-All tells us nothing about celebrity culture, it simply reflects back at us--a hundred-fold--what we already wrongly assume. Even the worst book of this sort reveals something about human nature--the writer's, if not the subject's; by distancing himself behind fiction, Palahniuk denies us even that.

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