While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, November 17, 2008

No Accounting For The Taste Of An Accounting Student

Why I Used To Enjoy Books By Chuck Palahniuk, Using His Latest Novel,
Snuff, As An Example

1. "It's the vibe of the thing, Your Honour"

Dirty, dark, wry, nihilistic, visceral. Snuff is all of these things. Shocking, too, perhaps, depending on your shock threshold. (Tick yes if you find hardcore pornography, date rape, incest, mutilated genitalia, and/or urine socked stuffed toys shocking.)

2. It sure was interesting

Snuff contains riffs on the following topics: the history of gang bang style pornographic films, the death or maiming of more traditional movie stars as a consequence of their craft, a history of vibrators, gang-land tattoos, the history of cyanide, the means of suicide of movie stars of yesteryear... do you see a theme developing? See dark/dirty/nihilistic discussion above.

Chuck Palahniuk has done a lot of research, and he does his best to impart his learnings to the reader.

In addition, there's all the stuff he just plain made up himself, like the names of fictional porn actors named after alcoholic beverages (Branch Bacardi, Cord Cuevo, Beamer Bushmills...) and the names of Cassie Wright's films (variations on real books/films: The Da Vinci Load, Butt Pirates of The Carribean, The Importance of Balling Earnest).

3. No fat

Snuff is only 197 well-spaced pages. Every sentence and every chapter feel crafted, honed. There are no big words. Certain phrases (‘True Fact’...) and images (dandruff, bronzer…) reappear and act as refrains, helping to add a rhythm to a passage and remind us who is talking.

4. More twists than a packet of... um, twisties

Every chapter hums along with it's surface concern and then right at the end you realise all is not as it seems: Mr 72 believes he is Cassie's son / Mr 600 might be Mr 72's dad / the disgusting dude Mr 600 is watching on TV is actually himself...

And then there's the biggest twist of all, which, like Fight Club and Choke and Invisible Monsters (and maybe more, I'm getting forgetful), revolves around people not being who they say they are, or being more than they say they are. I didn't pick Snuff's big twist until half a page before it happens. That's pretty good. I'm honestly trying not to be sarcastic in this first section.

But I can't keep it up any longer.

Why I No Longer Enjoy Books By Chuck Palahniuk, Using His Latest Novel, Snuff, As An Example

1. "It's the vibe of the thing, Your Honour"

Hardcore pornography, date rape, incest, mutilated genitalia, an unhygienic craft service table... Snuff sounds shocking on paper, but everything is presented with so much intent - - the scene where Branch Bacardi absent-mindedly shaves his nipple off; the scene where Mr 137 accidentally eats a flake of Sheila's dandruff - - that it's not shocking. It's like those modern horror movies where the villain and the blood and the guts and the screaming gets 90% of the screen time, and it's not actually scary anymore, it's something else (sadistic?).

And as for the wryness, the jokes are as stagey and hammed-up as the sadism, I mean schlock, I mean shock. All those porn star names and porno titles. It just becomes another device to space out a chapter.

2. It sure was interesting

There's nothing wrong with doing research. I simply object to the way Palahniuk inserts the findings of his research. On most occasions, the riffs are presented as reported speech, and intercut with two or three of the following: direct speech regarding something else, either from the narrator or a third person; a description of something happening in the present (what Cassie Wright is doing on the TV screen / the state of the waiting room / the signatures on Mr 137's Autograph Hound); a description of something that happened in the past. I don't mind the fact these riffs are intercut (they need to be spaced out by something!), but that someone is supposedly saying these things.

For example, the exchange between Sheila and Cassie Wright in chapter 12 presents the history of pelvic floor exercises and a catalogue of film actors who befell terrible injuries whilst filming as Cassie’s reported speech, while in direct speech we only get earthy sentiments like, “He’s hot,” and “Fuck… that one was genuine jade.” And then, the direct speech Cassie Wright doesn’t know the philosopher Aristotle (“The man who married Jackie O?”). This may be an attempt at humour, but its real effect is to underline how the research element is independent of the character ostensibly delivering the nuggets.

Indeed, the voice of these research-heavy riffs is constant, regardless of whose speech is being reported and which of the four narrators is doing the reporting, and this is why I am left thinking: Thanks for that, Chuck Palahniuk. It's all too clumsy, too showy, too schlocky.

And then there's the strange tension created by all of these real world facts and anecdotes (Annabel Chong did this, Annabel Chong did that), with the pantheon of fake porn Palahniuk regales us with. It's not a case of having to figure out where the real world ends and the fiction begins, the two are so clearly delineated by voice and content that they are almost different languages. No, the problem is that it yet again reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk and the act of compiling this book (I say compiling, because it's a cut and paste job more than a successful attempt at a prolonged prose narrative).

3. No Fat

Snuff may be concise but if you poke around the story, you find there's nothing there. The action takes place over a limited timespan (about 10 hours) with minimal flash backs, and the novel purports to see the action from four different perspectives -- but what do we really get in that time? 30+ chapters with the same structure: set-up, twist; set-up, twist. And the four voices, despite a few token efforts at differentiation (the “True Fact” refrain, Mr 600's use of "dudes"), all of the narrators share the same voice as Palahniuk's other damaged, grimy narrators. They aren't narrators so much as perspectives from which a third person limits their knowledge and relates the action. I guess out-and-out omniscience runs contrary to Palahniuk’s nihilism, I mean romanticism. Everything presented on the page is in service of the vibe, nothing is in service of the characters.

Having wafer thin characters does allow the author more scope in where he can take them. Crazy shit appears to work on the surface, because all we have in Snuff is surface: characters who don’t know each other can suddenly fall in love (Mr 72 and Sheila, the hitherto gay Mr 137 and Cassie), or act out of character (the selflessness of Mr 600's final act), because there wasn't really any depth of character their to begin with.

4. More twists than a packet of... um, twisties

The set-up, twist structure begins to grate after a while. It's a bit like a child overusing exclamation marks. The twists stop being twists because they are expected. Near the end, Palahniuk has forced himself into a corner: he needs to out twist his previous twists, out shock his previous shocks, out gross everything that has gone before. So we get necrophilia, electrocution, ghosts and sexual welding.

At the same time, the last twenty pages are the worst kind of throwaway. Whereas earlier in the book the writer's bodily fluids could be clearly detected on the pages, it's as if Palahniuk doesn't truly believe in what he's asking us to believe at the end of Snuff: the chapters are shorter, the cut-up structure within chapters is set aside, the nifty research he digs so much is all but gone (there is a Marilyn Monroe riff, so...), and we are rattled through to another ending with two damaged individuals forming an unlikely couple in the rubble.


The above is a purely personal take. I suspect I would have liked Snuff if I read it six years ago -- though the subject matter would still have been alienating. This is not to say that I am now a better reader and that anyone currently who likes Palahniuk's work is any sort of inferior. Just that my tastes have changed. I want different things from fiction. I can cope with less twists and less grime and less cool-factor if the story can make me suspend my disbelief. The fact that I have immersed myself in writing fiction over the last six years means it's harder to make me suspend my disbelief: my default mode of reading is thinking about what the writing is doing. I'm less forgiving of loose writing and sore thumb scenarios. But the good stuff can still suck me in. That's why it's so hard to write about the good books and why I took two pages of notes while reading Snuff. The fact I'm no longer an angry young man might also explain why the Palahniuk vibe has lost its appeal.

I suspect if I was to read a book by Vladimir Nabokov, the writer I swore allegiance to after Palahniuk, I'm sure I would be able to write something similar (if a little less scathing). The thing about reading (and writing, too, I guess), is that you can never step in the same book twice.

No comments: