Sunday, April 08, 2012

Pygmy (Chuck Palahniuk Redux)

There is something to be said about reading thru a chunk of an author’s works. I engaged a second Palahniuk novel, Pygmy. I also got three novels by Mary Renault at the library, but have only read one so far. CP’s Damned interested me even as it disappointed or irritated me. Pygmy satisfies me more. Maybe I will continue with this author.

I guess what I like about CP is his tendency towards tour de force. He sets up somewhat impossible situations—somewhat because this is, after all, fiction—then tries to hang on. This is an especially definitive plus in Woolf, whose experiments seem part of her lifeforce. Okay, CP does hang on. Damned featured a cheerfully detestable Hell, as seen thru the eyes of a sassy 13 year old. Pygmy posits terrorists from an unnamed totalitarian state infiltrating high school, as part of a scheme to overthrow the country.

It is written as a report from one operative, who is inexplicably named Pygmy. He is brought to this country as a foreign exchange student, along with a number of other operatives. The parents are fundamentalists—they give him a PROPERTY OF JESUS t-shirt—the children denatured teen revolt.

Pygmy writes in a broken English that cannot be explained. Full of literalisms and semantic confusions, it doesn’t add up. If he’s writing to his own people, he would use his own language (helpfully translated by CP into English). This manner of expression is the book’s style, and one of its pluses, but its use makes no sense.

But so it goes.

Choice state bromides course thru Pygmy’s mind, as well as ruminations on how it would be to perform various martial arts moves—Lashing Lynx, Barracuda Deadly Eye Gouge—in situations he is in. The cover consists of some figures illustrating the moves that Pygmy thinks about and uses. He’s supposed to be 13, but he and his host siblings don’t add up agewise. We assume that he’s just daydreaming. but after his pigdog brother gets bullied, Pygmy doesn’t just efficiently beat up the bully, Pygmy anally rapes him. And it would have been graphically described had Pygmy not described it in his screwy patois.

Such a scene seems in accord with a certain style of outrageousness. It is almost lurid, but resists, finally. Outrageousness is a pale form of currency, after all.

Pygmy fears retaliation by the bully, but in fact the bully becomes infatuated in Pygmy. Unrequited, he sets off murderous events at an Academic United Nations, so that Pygmy will kill him. Ugh, I’m getting lost in the plot. There’s some satire in there, under heavy hand.

You can relax. It all comes to an orderly climax in which Pygmy thwarts Operation Havoc, his host family survives, and he removes the hollow molar containing cyanide from his mouth. Boo hoo, no spoiler alert. Thru out the book, he develops feelings for his host sister. I guess we’re supposed to think his humanity causes him to turn from the robotic state.

Like with Damned, we have pat resolution. The hyped outrageousness of both books receives a shock tempering in the final chapter. Palahniuk does not know how to keep his hands off the product of his imagination at the crucial point. Neither book offers a clear way to end, so CP opts for platitudinous relief. I wonder if he ever solves this problem.

Thru out, quotes from heroes such as Hitler, Mao, Idi Amin, part of Pygmy’s inculcation, celebrate the mad social effort to keep in line, as lived by Pygmy. These revolutionary statements sound good. I mean, you could sweep them together with Jefferson, Rousseau, or whoever. They represent the cannier side of CP. His writing sets framed in the social context, which is quite compelling. I wish he wasn’t so convinced by a satisfying ending, however.

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