Monday, October 20, 2008

Snuff - Chuck Palahniuk

Snuff is the most recent novel by Chuck Palahniuk, released May 20, 2008, exactly five months ago today. The earlier comment, made in the review of Survivor, concerning the author's prolific output may be a bit of an exaggeration, though he has already announced details concerning his next novel to be released in 2009 on his website. I do expect to be able to read Pygmy after having finished the remaining volumes. You may be wondering why this Palahniuk obsession all of the sudden? Fact is, I'm coming up very soon on completing my second novel, and the idea of selling it (just printing it out, really) is so daunting to me that I have turned to this author as an example of what it takes to attain success in the modern literary marketplace. On the biographical note at the end of Snuff, it is stated that Palahniuk has sold over three million books. This on top of two movie deals, and at least two more forthcoming. To say that I wish I lived his life would be perfect honesty.

Granted, his fiction may not cast as wide a net as Philip Roth's--Snuff may be downright offensive in comparison to Portnoy's Complaint. But it really isn't so bad. I mean, for a book about the making of a world record breaking pornographic film, it is not really so shocking after the first 50 pages or so. There are at least two revelations concerning potential coital relations with paternal and maternal sources--and while that may be hard to swallow, so to speak, once all of the cliches of porn are exhausted, it becomes just another book about just another job. There are a couple things to mention. First, so far it is my least favorite book by Palahniuk, and I only recommend it if you don't care about reading something that can be considered a trifle. Not unlike A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby, one of the first items reviewed on this blog (except that volume might hold more intrinsic value), it makes for good "beach reading." That is, if you don't mind other beach goers perhaps thinking you are perverted (as someone who read Naked Lunch on beach visits six years ago, I do not worry about that). Second, it is also Palahniuk's shortest book, which is why I call it something of a trifle, and not anywhere near the heights of any of the previous books I've read by him. Rant, this book's direct predecessor, does not get off to as quick a start as this one, but there is a far greater payoff in the end. All things considered, the New York Times review of Snuff (which can be found here is more harsh than I am willing to be because the book is not as meaningless as Ellman makes it out to be.

One quick note before a discussion of the plot commences. A few weeks ago I heard a piece on NPR about how book publishers are increasingly releasing "trailers" for books. I can understand how this might be helpful in an age where digital cable and streaming Internet videos threaten to trump all other media. However, I believed that, if a person brought themselves into a bookstore, or a library, or randomly searched on, the descriptions of the books are enough reason to pick something out, or leave it. In other words, the notes on the inside covers, the blurbs from other famous authors, or in my world, the "hook" in the query letter (which is enough for agents to tell me, "That's not for me."). Well, if you go to the page for Snuff on, you will find one of these so-called trailers. It is the first one I have watched and it is most instructive for getting to see Chuck Palahniuk in person and to hear how his last name is pronounced (differently than I have been saying for years).

Snuff concerns five main characters: Ms. Cassie Wright, who is undoubtedly the main character, but who does not provide one of the four rotating first person narratives that comprise the novel, Mr. 600, Mr. 72., Mr. 137, and Sheila, the talent coordinator. The setting is one long scene. A concrete basement where 600 guys stand around in their boxers waiting to be called in, 3 at a time, to perform their duties with Ms. Wright and help her to set a new world record for the biggest gang bang of all time. Cassie Wright is a legendary porn star that has been in the business for about twenty years. Mr. 600 a.k.a. Branch Bacardi is her male equivalent, and co-star in many films. Mr. 72 a.k.a. Darin Johnson is an 18-year-old bearing roses and wearing a crucifix necklace who hopes to deliver a particular message to Ms. Wright. Mr. 137 a.k.a. Dan Banyan is a recently disgraced television actor who hopes to resuscitate his career by performing in a different kind of porno than the one from which he was "outed." Sheila is the 20-year-old who makes the pitch to Cassie for the film, and makes all of the preparations for its production.

There is not much of a plot to speak of--beyond the certain pills Mr. 137 keeps, the certain pill Mr. 600 keeps, and issues of paternity and maternity. Snuff is mostly an exhibition space for low-brow comedy, and I will admit that a few of the puns in the filmography of Cassie Wright (To Drill a Mockingbird, The Da Vinci Load, The Postman Always Cums Twice, Catch Her in the Eye, The Wizard of Ass) made me laugh out loud. However, it is also a meditation on the desperation and guilty feelings associated with the industry. There are not as many descriptive segments to excerpt as in other works by Palahniuk, but there are a couple that do identify this element in the novel. The laugh-it-off desperation:

"Even indoors like this, Bacardi, Cord Cuervo, Beamer Bushmills--all the male dinosaurs of the adult industry still wear their sunglasses. They pat and smooth their hair. They're the generation of genuine stage actors; they studied their craft at UCLA or NYU, but needed to pay the rent between legitimate roles. To them, doing porn was a lark. A radical political gesture. Playing the male lead in The Twilight Bone or A Tale of Two Titties was a joke to put on their resume. After they were bankable legitimate stars, those early jobs would become fodder for anecdotes they'd tell on late-night talk shows." (12-13)

And the chilling guilt:

"'It only takes one mistake,' the Dan Banyan guy says, 'and nothing else you ever do will matter.' With his empty hand, he takes one of my hands. His fingers feel hot, fever-hot, and pounding with his heartbeats. He turns my hand palm-up saying, 'No matter how hard you work or how smart you become, you'll always be known for that one poor choice.' He sets the blue pill on my palm, saying, 'Do that one wrong thing--and you'll be dead for the rest of your life.' (110-111)

Snuff is probably not going to be nominated for the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or the PEN/Faulkner prize. (A side note on prizes: with recent mention of why American writers rarely win the Nobel--they supposedly don't understand the mechanics of literature as well as Europeans do--which I will agree on Thomas Mann about, but that's it--would it be appropriate to offer D.F. Wallace the Nobel posthumously, a la J.K. Toole for the Pulitzer? I vote yes. It is certainly the kind of story to keep the literary trade alive and appealing for future generations of would-be-mostly disappointed writers.) Palahniuk may have an even greater American novel than Fight Club in him yet, but this will rarely top the list of his oeuvre. It is, like I said, a trifle; easy and quick to read. I feel good having read it but I'm glad I got it out of the library--it's not a book I need to own.

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