Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Chuck Palahniuk, "Pygmy"

Chuck Palahniuk is an expert machinist, always coming up with creative new frames on which to mass-produce his same-old same-old anarchistic depravity. The problem is, after the first few rhythmic chapters of any Palahniuk novel, the formula quickly oxidizes, turning brittle and emotionlessly redundant. He's a cold, harsh writer, which is what draws masochistic and sadistic readers to worship at his cult. Perhaps it's just because, having skipped Rant and Snuff, I've recharged my capacity for Palahniantics, but Pygmy, his latest, manages to wiggle enough amid its precisely plotted and patterned sections to at least entertain.

The secret of Pygmy is that its untitled character, who refers to himself as "operative me," isn't entirely indoctrinated. Sure, he's come to the United States (along with many other agents from his totalitarian state) so that he can destroy it, using his foreign exchange cover to initiate "Operation Havoc." True, every chapter of the novel (a "dispatch") is meticulously reported in his broken, prepositionless English, complete with a repeating quote (one per dispatch) from his idols: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and company. And yes, Palahniuk goes so overboard in burying his voice in bad grammar that he grinds every unique observation of Pygmy's down into a redundant, miserable powder: by the tenth time a door "heals" itself, or his "weapon" becomes "turgid" in his pants, it's just irritating. (Also, Palahniuk's voice *IS* still ominpresent via Pygmy's host family.) Palahniuk doesn't go as far as Burgess's Clockwork Orange, nor does his character's broken communication reveal as much as Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

What saves the narrative is the almost imperceptible frisson of Pygmy's not utter hatred of America, which allows him to make some poignant critiques of our culture. For instance, his recollections (from age 4 and up) are of training in moves like the "Striking Cobra Quick Kill," so when enrolled in an American school, a spelling bee is described as "Participate combat among student public education institution [redacted]. Forced battle to list English alphabet letters which compromise typical vocabulary word." The foreign-exchange students are so dedicated that the match continues for hours, making not only the American students restless--but the teachers, as well: "For official record, no impossible shouting death threat originated from renowned instructor."

As the novel progresses, Pygmy becomes more human and America grows less so, for it is shown to care so little for the things that actually matter. Pygmy's "host pig dog brother" sees love as pawing at "fun bags," but it is Pygmy who actually begins to fall for his "host sister, stealth cat." When one of Pygmy's classmates goes Columbine, he's the one who saves the helpless students (though he plans to use a neurotoxin on them later). Whereas the American girls flirt as casually as they abort, his fellow agent, Magda, is the one who comes to treasure motherhood. Coupled with his "host chicken" mother's Tupperware parties for sex toys and the amount of roofies fed to his "vast cow" father (by his own family!), it's hard to condemn Pygmy's choices. Palahniuk swings hard at religion, too, noting the similarities between Wal-Mart ("retail product distribution center") and church ("religion propaganda distribution outlet"); in this world, both even have the same elderly greeter, Mrs. Lilly, "esteemed madam soon rotting corpse."

It's no shock that Palahniuk's epigraph is Hitler's statement, "He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future." The shock is in realizing that it's not just Pygmy who has been indoctrinated, but rather all youths, who are constantly assailed by big business, big churches, "frenzied journalist attracted stench of human tragedy," and the social laws of school. Palahniuk seems to care a lot more for making cruder points, and cracking sicker jokes, but then again, he just understands his audience. And if there's the chance that some of them will shake off their wool and realize that, then Pygmy's worth reading.

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