The Monkey sits down to read a spanking new novel by an old favourite.
One hundred seventy-plus pages later, the Monkey finishes the novel and is crushed by overwhelming despair.
by Chuck Palahniuk (2010)
A respected author with his best days behind him is a sad, depressing prospect. And with his eleventh novel, American author Chuck Palahniuk has become very sad indeed. Palahniuk used to be a satirical darling with both critics and audiences. His novel Fight Club is a deservedly praised debut of verve and strength, and subsequent novels such as Rant and Choke justly earned him comparisons to J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut.NOTE: Before the actual review begins, I'd like to take a moment and discuss something I've been struggling with for some days. As you'll read, I well and truly (spoiler alert!) loathe this novel. But I admit to internal conflict in this. How is Tell-All, to my mind, as poor a novel as The Murder of King Tut or Left Behind or The Justice Riders; novels that can't even summon up the gumption to be interesting. Palahniuk is undeniably a better author than the people behind those masses of tripe, a far more talented craftsman with a unique voice and (usually) singular energy. Yet Tell-All reeks of tedium. I read it, and I cannot find a reason for it to exist. If it weren't for the force of Palahniuk's name, I find it impossible to believe that it would ever have been published. Is it the unproven cynicism behind the novel that goads me, the thrusting of any of Palahniuk's half-baked ideas into the marketplace with the assumption that his fans will lap up anything? That is something I well and truly believe James Patterson does on a daily basis, but I never before would have lumped Chuck in the same pile. As I said, conflict roils in my belly, and I feel sick. Nevertheless, I have to stand by my criticism; Tell-All is execrable.
And now, preamble over, let's get to the review...
Lately, however, the quality of Palahniuk’s writings has been slipping. Snuff, about a porn actress trying to beat a sexual record, was a divisive piece of work, and his last novel Pygmy, about a pint-sized terrorist infiltrating an American family, found Palahniuk misfiring on many cylinders.
Yet even with the heartily disappointing Pygmy, Palahniuk was still an author trying out some new moves. But with Tell-All, his fourth novel in as many years, Palahniuk simply gives up, delivering a novel as negligible in size as it is in ambition.
Setting as his centerpiece the antics of a fading oft-married movie star a la Elizabeth Taylor combined with Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, Tell-All is an excursion into the classic Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s. Written in a style akin to gossip tabloids of the time (complete with boldface font for every name mentioned), the novel promises on its surface to be a devastating dissection of celebrity, classic Palahniuk fare.
Palahniuk’s star is the once-famous Katherine Kenton, an actress now “earning applause, not for any performance, but for simply not dying.” The roles have dried up for Ms. Kenton, the only script on her night table “a horror flick about an aged voodoo priestess creating an army of zombies to take over the world.”
Tell-All is narrated by Kenton’s servant Hazie, who tends to “the endless job of dusting and polishing the not insignificant number of bibelots and gold-plated gimcracks awarded to Miss Katie.” Hazie also guards Kenton from possible suitors with ulterior motives, such as the celebrity biographer Webster Carlton Westward III, “the literary equivalent of a magpie, stealing the brightest and darkest moments from every celebrity he’ll meet.”
It’s hardly a unique setting, but the curse of celebrity has always provided a rich vein for satire. There are mild hints through the pages at what Tell-All could have been, an exposé of starwatchers who crave depictions of the sordid lives of celebrities, seeking “comfort and license in their own tawdry, disordered lives.”
Yet while even lesser efforts such as Invisible Monsters saw Palahniuk still pushing at his limits, Tell-All is the effort of an author who has utterly given up. It is a soggy, misshapen mess of half-baked parody and puddle-shallow inspiration.
Not one narrative element is even remotely interesting in presentation. Calling its characters superficial caricatures is a vast understatement, and not once throughout the thankfully meager length does Palahniuk ever achieve anything approaching actual insight. This would not be fatal if the story was at least somewhat captivating, but his paltry attempts at plot are, in keeping with Tell-All’s overall production, laughably insignificant.
Tell-All is an insulting shrug of indifference from an author who once actually mattered on the literary scene. To misquote Norma Desmond, Chuck may still be big, but his novels have gotten small.
VERDICT: MONKEY FLAT-OUT HATES
Originally published (expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, May 22, 2010.