Pygmy, Chuck Palahniuk’s 10th novel, is about “one of a handful of young adults from a totalitarian state sent to the United States, disguised as exchange students to live with typical American families and blend in, all the while planning an unspecified act of mass terrorism.” I know that’s what Pygmy is about because that’s what it says on the dust jacket. For the life of me, there’s no other way I could have relayed the plot.
I forced my way through James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and inched painfully, if finally triumphantly, through Andre Biely’s St. Petersburg and felt that I had something to show for my efforts. (I admit I quit near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, but found myself richer for the struggle.) But I couldn’t make heads or tails of Pygmy, and when I finished putting together all the pieces, it added up to a perfect blank.
Reading Pygmy is like trying to do a crossword puzzle while riding a horse underwater. Each chapter begins with some variation of “Begins here first account of operative me, Agent Number 67, on arrival Midwestern American greater _____ area. Flight ____. Date ____. Priority mission top success to complete. Code name: Operation Havoc.” (p. 1.) The underlined blanks here indicate actual blank spots in the text, presumably to imply, I guess, that this is some kind of code or top-secret information. They’re hardly necessary, as the text is almost impossible to read anyway.
Most of the rest of Pygmy is written in this kind of pidgin-American-English which sounds as if it had been translated by Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas: “Passport man strike paper of book with ink, marked good to enter nation. Slide passport book returned to this agent. Man say, ‘Welcome to the greatest country on earth.’ Press button and doors allow way inside United States, accessing target family to harvest.” (p. 2.) Please trust me that I’m citing the most readable passages.
Some of Pygmy sounds as if it was written by an evil creative-writing class student trying his best to do a bad imitation of Joyce: “Light craning on stork neck illuminate where sister sit, tilt to watch where solder melt. Electric bulb of light strong bright.” (p. 32.) If you think you can pick your way through that, chew on this: “For official record, effect worst—idiot song flush from head of operative me most irregular verbs Mandarin Chinese... Idiot lyric overwhelm understanding of advanced field equations calculus. Overpower and devastate to oblivion stored memory to operate Iranian-manufactured Khaybar Kh2002 medium-barrel assault rifle. Crowd until no longer recall how many rounds per minute capable firing Ukrainian Vepr assault rifle.” (p. 48.) That’s easy for him to say.
The point of all of this tedious and innervating gibberish is, apparently, some kind of social satire—Palahniuk, it seems, hates the hypocrisy and greed and shallowness of contemporary American life. Pygmy and his co-conspirators are obviously Chinese—“enlightened prophet, regal amartyr Richard Nixon” is quoted on page 101, and China is the only country on earth that still regards Nixon that way. The reason why Palahniuk doesn’t name them as Chinese must be that he doesn’t want to be accused of caricaturing a foreign culture. Ours, on the other hand, is fair game. “So corrupt, evil, vile American liberal culture, such United States pretension,” as Pygmy reports. (p. 181.) Example: “Courageous, renown of history. Colonel Sanders, image forever accompanied odor of sacrificial meat. Eternal flame offering wind savory perfume roasted flesh.” (p. 63.) That’s almost funny enough to make it into a MADtv sketch. Almost.
Part of the problem with Pygmy is that there’s no rhythm or consistency to the language or vision it describes; this isn’t a carefully thought-out world with its own vernacular like, say, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. When you do succeed in deciphering a couple of sentences, the joke sounds like something that should be followed by “Butta-bump!” (Rather like the ongoing lists of porno flicks in Snuff, such as To Drill A Mockingbird, Chitty, Chitty Gang Bang, Beat Me in St. Louis, and my own personal favorite, Lady Windermere’s Fanny, all of which are conclusive proof that Palahniuk, contrary to his critics, is cleverer than the average pornographer.)
Like most of Palahniuk’s literary gimmicks— Survivor, for instance, in which the chapters work their way back to the beginning of the story—the idea is stillborn on delivery. Another problem is that he really has nothing to say. The two streams of satire—Pygmy’s pushbutton, brain-dead reflections of a totalitarian minds-et and his indictment of a silly American culture—neutralize each other. It’s what might be called nihilism if Palahniuk was a serious enough writer to merit that label. At his best, he suggests the late Kurt Vonnegut at his worst, and Palahniuk makes Vonnegut seem like Nabokov.
Palahniuk’s fans, who are as uncritical and fervent as Trekkies, and have a nasty habit of following their idol’s critics around online and heaping them with abuse, will have a ball with Pygmy. As with devotees of Coen brothers films, the only question that matters is not “Is it good?” but “How is it like his other stuff?” The answer I guess is very like, though not nearly so sex-drenched, as Snuff or Choke. (One character’s fear that “What scares me is how the Chinese are light-years ahead of us in the sex-toy race” is a matter sadly not followed up.) (p. 34.) One big plus for those who aren’t Palahniuk freaks is that Pygmy is entirely devoid of the word “dude,” a term that, in previous novels, the former truck mechanic has used the way a truck driver uses ketchup.
In Choke, published in 2001, a character laments, “Sometimes it’s like I want to be beaten and punished. It’s OK that there isn’t a God anymore, but I still want to respect something. I don’t want to be the center of my own universe.” But after 10 novels, there seems to be no center to Palahniuk’s universe. In truth, they seem to be just one facet to his celebrity, a celebrity defined by his response to questions like the one in the current issue of Playboy, where, in answer to a question of how many audience members fainted during a reading of the story Guts, he replies, “It’s an amazing thing to watch from up front where I can see it all happen. People come into the auditorium and they’re all hating the fact that they’re packed in together with too many other people ... Then I read Guts. They can’t all see what’s going on, but from up front I can see the moment one person begins to quaver. His head goes down, and he slumps into the lap of the person next to him. I see the horror on the face of the person being slumped on. The face says, ‘How dare you touch me? Get the f##k off me.’ Then something happens. It’s as if they feel the person has, in a way, died. Soon the entire audience catches on and jumps up. For them, too, it’s like seeing a person die. Everything stops, and the person who has passed out is the center of everyone’s attention. The whole crowd of 800 people goes from hating one another to being one. I’m watching it, and it’s just glorious. At that point, instead of hating one another, people have bonded over this shared experience, this witnessing of death and resurrection, and they’re euphoric.”
Palahniuk, the idiot’s messiah of American letters, has been telling stories like this to Internet interviewers for years; sometimes it involves how many audience members puked. I suppose this reaction makes him feel euphoric, too. If only Christ’s followers had been worked up enough to puke after the Sermon on the Mount, he might have had something.
As Laura Miller once observed on Salon.com, Palahniuk’s natural readers seem to be high-school students whose existentialism is derived from listening to Nine Inch Nails. I think frat-house boys would be more accurate. Those who don’t seek salvation from Palahniuk’s vision might regard Pygmy as Gertrude Stein regarded Oakland. There’s no there.
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.