Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, satire, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Beautiful You’ by Chuck Palahniuk


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…

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Snuff’ by Chuck Palahniuk


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 208 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’ll be perfectly frank: I did not expect to like Chuck Palahniuk‘s latest paperback release because of the sordid subject matter. I wasn’t sure I would be entirely comfortable reading about an aging porn star attempting to break the world record for serial fornication with 600 men on camera.

But Palahniuk delivers such an extraordinarily funny story that you can’t help but laugh your way through it. And before long you realise that this isn’t a novel glorifying pornography. If anything it sends it up, pokes fun at the ridiculous nature of it and highlights how warped you would have to be to participate in a gang-bang that is being filmed for public consumption.

The story is told from the perspectives of three men — Mr 72, Mr 137 and Mr 600 — as they wait in the queue for their turn in front of the camera. Sheila, the wrangler who runs the green room, also narrates her side of the story.

If you think this sounds like the real life story of Annabel Chong, the pornographic actress who became famous by engaging in 251 sex acts with about 70 men over a ten-hour period, setting a world record in 1995, then you’d be right. But Palahniuk ratchets things up a gear or two, and makes the whole concept a terrible macabre joke by suggesting that the exercise, which might just kill Cassie Wright, will act as a launching pad for the careers of 600 desperate men happy to do anything to get in the history books. Or, as Mr 600 so aptly puts it:

Cassie Wright will be dead, but her backlist of videos, everything from the Ass Menagerie to her all-facial compilation Catch Her in the Eye to the classic A Separate Piece will turn into solid gold. Bang the Bum Slowly. Boxed collector-edition sets. The eternal Marilyn Monroe sacrificial goddess of adult entertainment.

As you would expect for a novel of this type, the language is crude and not for the faint-hearted. And whilst the subject matter is taboo, Palahniuk makes the history of it wholly fascinating, scattering intriguing and little-known facts throughout, such as Sheila’s claim that Hitler invented the first blow-up sex doll, which, as my own internet research has revealed, is actually true:

During the First World War, I told her, Hitler had been a runner, delivering messages between the German trenches, and he was disgusted by seeing his fellow soldiers visit French brothels. To keep the Aryan bloodlines pure, and prevent the spread of venereal disease, he commissioned an inflatable doll that Nazi troops could take into battle. Hitler himself designed the dolls to have blond hair and large breasts. The Allied firebombing of Dresden destroyed the factory before the dolls could go into wide distribution.

Quite clearly this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but having read pretty much all of Palahniuk’s previous work I wasn’t going to let this one slip by. I very much enjoyed it. And the ending is an absolute riotous cracker!

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Rant’ by Chuck Palahniuk


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favourite authors. He has a distinctive, often experimental, style that mixes black humour with scathing satire. The result is often a very funny, completely surreal, rollicking good read. But his new novel — subtitled The Oral History of Buster Casey — fails to deliver the usual offbeat and inspired narrative I have come to expect.

Rant is essentially a story about a now-dead wayward weirdo — Buster L “Rant” Casey — who is responsible for an urban plague of rabies and other “pranks” across America. It is set in a technologically advanced dystopian future in which people are separated into two distinct groups — daytimers and nighttimers.  The nighttimers, who come out when it is dark, spend a large proportion of their time Party Crashing. This is a sport in which participants deliberately cause car accidents in a rather destructive and surreal version of a demolition derby.

The book is structured as a series of interviews with people who knew Rant before he killed himself. This forms a rather disjointed oral biography in which a vast array of characters reminisce about Rant’s
short but violent life (he died during a Party Crashing event that was screened live on television), analyse his character flaws and personality, speculate about his motives for committing suicide and debate whether his upbringing was to blame for his bad behaviour.

This mock-documentary treatment is a brave and interesting twist on Palahniuk’s usual temporal (told backwards) narrative style, but in my opinion I don’t think it truly works. It comes across as too disjointed and too bitty to build up any narrative flow so that it was a very real struggle to turn the pages.

While Palahniuk introduces some interesting and often hilarious concepts — I love that Party Crashers  recognise each other by dressing their cars with “Just Married” paraphernalia whileparticipants wear bridal gowns — the novel’s flawed structure is a major distraction. This is a shame, because Rant makes some important points about contemporary society, including our obsession with fame, video games and materialism, just to name a few.

If you have not read a Palahniuk novel before, I would not suggest starting with this one, if only because I think it lacks narrative drive. But all the others in his back catalogue — many of which are reviewed on this site — are definitely worth pursuing.

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, satire, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Survivor’ by Chuck Palahniuk


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 289 pages; 1999.

Survival is typical Chuck Palahniuk fare: surreal, outlandish and completely over-the-top.

This oh-so brilliant satire on fame and religion is a gripping read from the first word.

Tender Branson, the last surviving member of the Creedish Cult is at the helm of a plane about to crash over the Australian outback. Into the plane’s black box flight recorder he tells his freakish tale: how he escaped the clutches of his repressive cult by becoming a hired servant in an equally repressive household; how he found himself accidentally responsible for manning a I-can-help-you-commit-suicide-phone-line (I told you it was surreal); how he became caught up in a comedy of errors that saw him transformed into the new messiah.

This weird and bizarre story is savagely funny from woe to go. The writing, hypnotic and lyrical, has that same beautiful rhythm that characterises all of Palahniuk’s novels. It’s brash, laugh-out-loud-funny and an enormously unconventional novel I couldn’t recommend highly enough.

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Invisible Monsters’ by Chuck Palahniuk


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 304 pages; 2000.

There’s nothing quite as surreal as immersing yourself in a Chuck Palahniuk book. He takes imagination to a whole new level, let me tell you. Invisible Monsters is no exception. There’s enough quirky, eccentric, off-beat characters to fill an entire universe in this one.

But seriously, this is a brilliant novel full of complicated and unexpected twists and turns (although I did guess the main one well before it was revealed). It’s set in the bitchy, I’m-a-bigger-whore-than-you fashion world and tells the story of a fallen glamour model who had her face horribly disfigured in an “accident” and is no longer able to speak. She hooks up with her new best friend, Brandy Alexander, and tries to start her life afresh.

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time (a recurrent Palahniuk trick used in his other novels), which serves to disorientate the reader in much the same way you imagine that the drugs the characters scoff throughout the story disorientate them. But because this author is such a skilled writer he deftly weaves the strands together so that you never seen the joins. And once you understand (and get used) to his literary style you immediately fall in love with it and wish you’d invented it before him.

All in all, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Diary’ by Chuck Palahniuk


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 272 pages; 2004.

London’s Time Out magazine described Chuck Palahuniuk‘s Diary as “Part Rosemary’s Baby, part the Wicker Man“, which is to say it’s creepy and nihilistic, shocking and disturbing.

Personally, I think a more apt description for Diary is Stephen King’s Misery meets Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.

Palahniuk, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, has written a wonderfully entertaining novel that gripped me from start to finish.

It takes the form of a stylised diary written by Misty Marie Wilmot, who is a washed-up artist living on the happy holiday, picture-postcard pretty resort of Waytansea Island. Her husband has just tried to kill himself and now lies in a coma from which it’s unlikely he’ll ever recover. Her 12-year-old daughter, Tabitha, has developed an unholy alliance with Misty’s mother-in-law, Grace, and life, in general, has turned into a fog of constant drinking, pill-popping and cigarette smoking, while working as a downtrodden, quickly ageing maid at the island’s tourist-ridden hotel.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, Misty has to fight off legal suits being filed against her husband who has been “hiding” rooms in houses he’s refurbished. Inside the “missing” rooms he’s scrawled vile and violent messages across the walls, many of them personal attacks on Misty herself.

If this story sounds weird and depressing, let me confirm that it is. But it’s also hilariously, overwhelmingly, laugh-out-loud FUNNY. And like any great comedy the laughs are well-timed, coming at just the right points to alleviate the heartfelt despair.

Palahniuk also does clever things with the language. Diary switches from first person to third person and back again, sometimes within the space of a paragraph, but this is never disorientating for the reader. Similarly, it jumps backwards and forwards in time, but the switches are seamless. There’s a lovely, soothing rhythm to the writing. In some places it is like poetry.

And the story itself, which moves along at a heady pace, has some wonderful twists and turns. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Misty as she struggles to make sense of her life, her marriage and her real purpose for living, caught up in the devious plans of the people who are supposed to love her.

All in all, a fantastic (in all senses of the word) read.

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Choke’ by Chuck Palahniuk


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 293 pages; 2002.

To be honest, I bought Chuck Palahniuk‘s Choke on the strength of the opening line: “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.” This wry tone lasts throughout the entire novel, which is at times laugh-out-loud funny, though the humour is about as black as it comes.

There’s a lot of explicit sex in it, which isn’t surprising given that the main character, Victor Mancini, is a recovering sex addict.

But there’s more to the story than being naughty in broom cupboards, because Victor, who works in a bizarre 18th century theme park, is struggling to pay for his mother’s full-time medical care. She has Alzheimer’s and is rotting away in an institution at the ripe old age of 60 and keeps hinting at her son’s mysterious parentage.

To raise money for her upkeep, Victor devises a complicated scheme in which he pretends to choke on a piece of food in a restaurant in the belief that whoever “saves him” will provide money on a regular basis because they now feel responsible for his future. He does this so regularly, notching up a string of benefactors, that he begins to run out of eateries to choke in.

This comic novel, in the same tone as Ted Heller’s Slab Rat, is an interesting exposé on the problems and excesses of modern day life in America. It’s peppered with off-the-wall characters and off-the-wall moments; these characters seem to have stepped off the set of the Jerry Springer show. I kept turning the pages to see what outrageous thing would happen next. It is a wonderful piece of escapism.