by Chuck Palahniuk
Agent 67 has a slight problem. The terrorist operative, dubbed ‘Pygmy’ by his ignorant classmates, has infiltrated an American high school as a foreign exchange student from an anonymous totalitarian country. He and his fellow operatives plan to unleash “Operation Havoc” on an unsuspecting populace, but the perils of America’s consumerist society present unexpected challenges.
Chuck Palahniuk also has a problem. The American author rose to substantial prominence with his brilliant debut novel Fight Club, a blistering attack on American culture that read as part manifesto, part roaring good read.
Since then, Palahniuk has carved himself a comfy niche as an edgy cult satirist who never shies away from the profane, the scatological, and the painfully biological. It says much about Palahniuk’s canon of work that his last novel, Snuff, concerning a porn star trying to break the world record for the most sexual partners in one day, was a relatively tame affair for him.
Palahniuk’s problem is; where can he go from here? Efforts such as Diary and Lullaby revealed an author unafraid to travel new avenues, and his often-astonishing novel Rant gave us a glimpse of a true heir to the late J.G. Ballard, but other works such as Snuff and Haunted played to Palahniuk's worst tendencies, and found the well of pop culture topics running precariously dry.
Enter Pygmy, Palahniuk’s tenth novel, another assault on the western way of life that is guaranteed to offend almost everyone in some way, and a large step backward for the novelist. Palahniuk assails themes such as consumerism, sexuality, religion, peer pressure, school shootings, xenophobia, conformity, and individuality with his usual abandon, but Pygmy finds an author on a downward curve, content to use novelty and shock in place of content and substance.
Presented as ongoing communiqués from agent 67 to his masters, Pygmy is written in a pidgin English dialect that is initially off-putting. The lack of definitive articles and adjectives leads to a novel written solely in sentences such as “For official record, during American winter youth attend compulsive levels of teaching; during summer, American youth must attend shopping mall.”
The concept is not entirely successful (why would Pygmy write reports in English rather than his native tongue?), but it can lead to some offbeat and memorable descriptions of western culture. When Pygmy visits a Wal-Mart, the store presents itself as “squirrel maze of retail distribution centre puzzle of competition warring objects, all improved, all package within fire colors…All object printed: Love me. Look me. Million speaking objects, begging. Crown American consumer with power of king, to rescue choose and give home or abandon here for expire.”
It’s an interesting choice to be sure, and one that is sure to garner praise in some quarters for its ‘bravery’. However, the structure proves too limiting, and seldom does the conceit rise above anything other than a gimmick.
In the past, Palahniuk has demonstrated an ability to leaven the more outrageous aspects of his novels with a deep understanding of character. Pygmy’s construction discourages such empathy, giving us a cipher for a protagonist and a series of increasingly bizarre proceedings that jolt and titillate, but never impress as being anything more than snapshots.
By Pygmy’s end, Palahniuk’s style has drained the story of all possible tension, resulting in a book that reads as unfocused rage at anything and everything. What should have been invigorating, as in Fight Club and Choke, is instead airless and empty, a shell of a good idea.
It’s far too early to declare an end to Palahniuk’s reign as the preeminent alternative author in America, but Pygmy finds the author running on empty. Pygmy has big themes and an enormous potential for effective satire, but in the end, Pygmy is, well, small.
MONKEY IS DEEPLY DISAPPOINTED
Originally published (heavily expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 17, 2009.