Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 242 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Reading a Chuck Palahniuk novel is like stepping into a parallel universe: everything seems familiar but it feels more edgy, more surreal, more over-the-top. I should know: I’ve read quite a few over the years.
His latest novel, Beautiful You, is no exception. This is a bold, brash, completely filthy, X-rated tale — definitely not one for the prudish — which blends science fiction with eroticism and throws in a smattering of fairy tale and myth into the bargain. It’s a bit like Cinderella — if Cinderella discovered pornography and had a really potty mouth.
Obviously, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and some of you may not even want to read this review, so let me keep it relatively brief — and as G-rated as I can.
The world’s richest man
Basically, the story is about the world’s richest man who has made his fortune from sex toys — specifically a bestselling product range for women known under the brand name Beautiful You. He’s called C Linux Maxwell, but most people refer to him as Climax Well (geddit?)
Maxwell has had a string of high-profile girlfriends, including an Oscar-winning French actress and the current female president of the United States, but all his relationships end badly after just 136 days and his “cast offs” become ill and begin behaving in wholly inappropriate ways for unexplained reasons. When he chooses a new girlfriend, a “plain Jane” type, called Penny Harrigan, she has no idea that she is going to become his next lab rat, “conned” into testing products that promise ultimate sexual fulfilment for women.
What ensues is a rather hilarious (bedroom) romp that catapults Penny into the world’s spotlight and allows her to reach untold heights of erotic pleasure. Meanwhile, thanks to Penny’s testing and feedback, the products become so successful that society basically falls apart as women lock themselves away to use the toys in a frenzy of “arousal addiction”.
But where will it all end? Will the human population die out now that men are no longer needed? Will Penny’s relationship with Maxwell last beyond his usual 136-day limit? And if not, will she succumb to the illness that has plagued his former lovers? What is the secret behind Maxwell’s success and his multi-billionaire status? Is he a philanthropist genuinely interested in helping women to discover sensual pleasure, or is he a megalomaniac with evil intentions on his mind?
X-rated and absurd
Despite the X-rated content and the absurd story at its heart, there’s a moral message here, too — that women are enslaved as consumers and society conditions them to put other people’s needs (sexual or otherwise) before their own.
However, this isn’t the kind of book you would normally read for what it might tell you about our modern-day consumer society. You read it for the laughs — and the sheer absurd escapism it offers.
Beautiful You is ultimately a fantastically funny tale told in a fantastically funny way. I laughed a lot while reading it — at the sex scenes, which are cheesy (and dirty), at the behaviour of the ridiculous over-the-top characters, at the bad science that underpins the novel’s premise and at the whole preposterous nature of the tale. At times it is genuinely shocking and a bit juvenile, but the storytelling is so compelling it’s like witnessing a car accident: you know you really shouldn’t look but you just can’t tear your eyes away…