Review: Chuck Palahniuk – SnuffPosted: June 20, 2008
A couple weeks ago, Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club, Choke, Survivor) was in D.C. for a book signing, reading, interview, and Q&A. It was a ticketed event, which allowed the author to (a) have the event last about 2 hours, (b) give away tons of free stuff, and (c) tell all the vile, offensive stories he’d like to without fear of upsetting the normal afternoon crowd at Barnes & Noble. Considering he was visiting in support of his most recent book, Snuff, which revolves around a pornstar trying to break the world gangbang record, you might understand why his P.R. team might want a little… exclusivity for this tour. I went because my brother got me a ticket as a birthday present, which included a signed book to be picked up that night.
The event itself was incredibly entertaining. Palahniuk wrote a short story called Loser specifically for the tour, written in second person perspective about a frat boy who drops acid and ends up on The Price is Right. It was clever and pretty damn funny, as the feverish college kid recalls being a feverish grade school kid, since the only time he’d watch the show was when he’d stay home sick. Other parts of the evening included games like “first one to fill up a blow-up doll gets a free book!” and other non-fiction anecdotes involving a guy snapping a finger off in a conveyor belt and a pug dog having an HIV scare. The interviewer wasn’t very good (First question: “Do you ever get tired of people asking you about Fight Club?” Really, who cares?) but that’s really my only complaint about the event itself.
The book on the other hand…
The criticism most often leveled at Palahniuk is that the voices of his protagonists are indistinguishable from one another. This makes me wonder why Palahniuk always writes in first person. With something like Fight Club, it’s obviously very important to stay entirely inside the narrator’s head. But with something like Snuff, where the first-person perspective rotates between four different characters, having indistinct voices ruins the story. Kevin Smith is often accused of the same thing, so imagine if he wrote a movie where the POV changed between each of Jason Lee’s characters, Brodie from Mallrats, Banky from Chasing Amy, and Azrael from Dogma. How long would it take before you completely lost track of who was who? This is sort of what reading Snuff is like.
The worst part is that these characters should be completely different people. You have the naive young nineteen-year-old (Mr. 72), who thinks he can “save” Cassie (the pornstar who drives most of the action, of whom we see surprisingly little throughout the book). You have the washed up TV actor (Mr. 137) trying to revive his B-list celebrity status. You have an old male porn legend (Mr. 600) whose motives always seem a little shaky. And you have Sheila, Cassie’s personal assistant. Why are these people are talking the same? Because that voice is Chuck Palahniuk’s voice.
There is a slight effort to distinguish the voices from each other, but these only appear in the form of weak catchphrases. Mr. 72 constantly repeats “I don’t know.” Sheila drops off-beat trivia and follows them up with “True fact,” which doesn’t do much to define her since everyone else seems to be dropping a collection of off-beat facts as well, a Palahniuk-ism that stretches back to Tyler Durden’s “You can make all sorts of explosives from common household appliances.”
Though maybe I’m getting a little too hung up on the voicing thing. There’s still a lot to be entertained by in this book. The never-ending listing of porn parodies is usually pretty funny. During the Q&A, Palahniuk mentions that the best porn titles are the ones that spoof something from childhood or something prestigious (such as “Chitty Chitty Gang Bang” or “To Drill a Mockingbird” or “A Tale of Two Titties”). The book also has more than a few weirdly poignant character details that really shine. Easily my favorite are the hobbies of Mr. 72’s parents, two clean-cut conservative religious types, consisting of a mother who bakes erotic cakes and father who builds miniature train sets of urban slums.
Ultimately though, I can’t really recommend this book. A handful of brilliant isolated moments can’t make up for a weak plot and weak characters. Still pretty cool I got a signed copy though.
My recommendation to Chuck? (Don’t give me that… let’s just pretend he’s reading this.) Leave your comfort zone. Write in third-person. Allow your narrative voice to play to its strengths by separating it from character. Star by scaling down a bit. Write up a few short story compilations where you play with these ideas. You know Loser, the story you wrote for the tour? The second person voice was ambitious, but it worked. Why? Because it was clear that you were telling the story, not a character indistiguishable from you. Write a a hundred Losers. Maybe not in second person, that could get a little gimmicky. But try third. Publish the best ten. If there’s one thing I could take away from the reading and Q&A, it’s that you’re a hell of story teller. Use that to your advantage.