Monday, May 10, 2010

I Read It So You Don't Have to: Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

Confessions of a lit snob:

Truth: I was a Chuck Palahiuk/Fight Club fuh-reak throughout high school and upon my entrance to college.  Age 14 initiation. Like a merit badge. 

Truth: I've kept Palahniuk as a semi-guilty literary indulgence.  This is my version of summer beach reading. May is usually kicked off with a fast, fast new Palahniuk title from my local library.

Truth: I'm something of an anomaly amongst folks immersed in literary academia and amongst those who suffered through what I suppose can now be referred to as the 'first wave' of teenage Chuck-cultism, I don't begrudge him much of anything, though I know better. But...

Truth: I get real irritated now when I meet 25-year olds who think they're well-read because they've conquered the Palahniuk canon and tell you about it like they think it's shocking.  Bitch, please: the definition of weird is not in your vocabulary.  It's time to expand your horizons.

Now, down to business.  I have read Tell-All so you don't have to.  I read it Thursday night in the commercial breaks and, let's be serious, this is no feat.  It's a slim volume, under 200 pages with relatively wide-set margins and zippy text.  There's glitter on the cover and that's just fine but not worth the $25 list price.  Yes, I've read Tell-All so you don't have to and I hate writing book reviews but I can see things that are both good and bad and I'll try to tell you about them concretely and abstractly.

I think Chuck Palahniuk is like a gateway drug into experimental fiction.  There's one thing that he's rarely at a loss for and that's a unique story with style.  Unlike most authors of easily accessible best selling fiction, you can usually count on Palahniuk for this much: something uniquely his presented with an added ounce of cleverness.  At times, the results are quite effective and surprising.  Fight Club, for its flaws, has earned its place on the cult radar, it's an acceptable addition to the novels read by angsty seventeen year old males (and females) and in all honestly I'll always like it more than Catcher in the Rye.  Choke and Invisible Monsters offer up some truly, legitimately memorable protagonists and situations.  Are they the greatest of books? Certainly not.  But as pop fiction, they provide a valuable service for our wayward youths: they pull them into a different vantage point and allow them to see the possibility of what literature can be, away from young adult morals, required reading structure, and Dan Brown, but cinematic and engrossing.  For many, these books are an introduction to the non-genre, to 'literature' away from mystery and chick lit and into worlds they don't expect to find.  That's a good thing.  If just a few Palahniuk cult kids move from Rant to Naked Lunch, Kathy Acker, or Jean Genet, it's a service to the writing/literary community.

Why am I going on like this?  Well, because Palahniuk is shifting, and the direction of his shift is kind of interesting.  Many, at this point, have written him off as the guy who feeds lame shock value to illiterate college kids. Yes, though I wouldn't quite put it like that.  But something is happening, and in the world of publishing that something is bizarre.  It started with Rant, I think.  While not particularly solid in execution, its oral history dystopia felt like a departure from standard mainstream narrative.  Then it flatlined with Snuff,  which felt too much like a hollow experiment with form and not much like a novel.  Last year there was Pygmy, a novel written in clipped syntax and so deep in cultural satire that it kills itself...but which solidified my suspicions (though it was an irritating read):  Palahniuk is testing the waters.  He's moving away from traditional narrative and starting to write (possibly) the way he really wants to write.  His books are being automatically published where they would normally be rejected immediately from the big name presses.  And people are buying them.  They're reading them. They're adjusting to them. This might be a little bit important.

Tell-All is the latest of these endeavors.  I'd hesitate to say it's good.  In fact, personally, I found it grating.  It suffers from a self-imposed, vaguely oulipian structure in which it insists on name-dropping in bold print a "tourettes-syndrome" of old Hollywood personalities usually prefaced with animal sounds "tweet quack meow...".   This sits like a veil over the actual story, forcing the reader to focus and dig deeper to parse through the tale; an exaggerated blending of Lillian Hellman filtered through something that's a touch Sunset Boulevard, a hint All About Eve Of course, when you find the story, it's flimsy and frequently downright dull.  Tell-All is the tale of aging starlet Katherine Kenton relayed through her snarky and suspicious (kind of Stroheim-y, yes) servant, Hazie Coogan.  The book becomes too caught up in clever turns of phrase (an ex-husband is a "was-band", groan) and setting its scene via cinematic camera angles and stage directions.  The point, I have to admit, was lost on me. I got the tabloid set-ups, the running commentary and inflated narcissism, but wasn't satisfied or sucked in any deeper.  But then again, maybe the superficiality is the points.  The novel is ultimately campier than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but it's repetitive and bland.  Its attempts at interesting imagery and high energy, ADD rattling sentences fall lifeless and limp.  Really, the most interesting thing about Tell-All is that it exists at all.  It feels like a cut-up and while it's a poorly produced one, perhaps, that unveils nothing further about its subject matter than the obvious absurdity of it all, there's something about it that feels artistically sort of applause worthy and dangerous for an author with such an established fan base (even if this draft should have been left on an external hard drive as a practice run). 

I didn't much like Tell-All, and frequently found myself too willing to skim already staccato chapters.  Yet, I'm fascinated by it.  It feels like an interesting step in a few different directions that's at once a personal injustice (Doubleday, I can almost guarantee you'd reject my legitimately ADD manuscript...but of course, you wouldn't get that far until I roped in an agent...) and a movement towards a different kind of pop fiction.

Make of that what you will, I told you I don't like writing book reviews.

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