My review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy just appeared in the Washington Post. Here’s the opening:
Sloppy yet smart, Chuck Palahniuk’s “Pygmy” veers from sublimely ridiculous to just plain ridiculous, sometimes within a single paragraph. An infiltrating agent from a nameless authoritarian country, Pygmy poses as a high school exchange student and joins the Midwestern family of Donald Cedar. “Host father,” as Pygmy calls him, works for the Radiological Institute of Medicine and has access to biotoxins. Pygmy and his fellow undersize operatives hope to unleash a biochemical Operation Havoc on an unsuspecting United States.
I had a lot more to say than can fit into a 450-word review, though. For example, the PR for the book describes it as a cross between South Park and The Manchurian Candidate. I think this is an accurate description of the novel, and a good indicator of one of the main problems with it: the tone veers wildly across scenes of blood-curdling indoctrination and what I can only call schoolboy-snicker “vibrator mise en scene.” As I read the novel, I was continually struck by how the material therein could’ve worked as some unholy variation on the TV cartoon Family Guy. The indoctrination scenes could’ve still been bloody but in cartoon context had more of an element of the absurd. The ridiculous scenes would’ve had more of an edge. Certainly, to me, the novel–and I’m making the assumption that the PR accurately depicts Palahniuk’s influences only for purposes of this argument–showed that some types of absurdity, some types of “funny” violence only really work when depicted in animation. And that when you try to ignore both the possibilities and limitations of the novel as opposed to the graphic novel you begin to run into trouble. (It’s a theory, anyway.)
The second problem, which I allude to in the review, serves as a good anti-example for beginning writers: Palahniuk has made everything too easy plotwise, and compounded that problem by making all of the adult characters idiots to achieve that goal. So, for example, the father who works with hazardous biochemical agents turns out to be so stupid he allows himself to be drugged for extended periods of time while his daughter steals the keys to the lab. (Not to mention the ease of Pygmy being able to get to the lab because of the daughter.) The teachers at the school are equally stupid in their actions, and so are the people running the science fair that figures into the ending. In a sense, too, Palahniuk is so busy sending up our modern society and the people in it that he sacrifices complexity of character to his satire. Both of these simplifications hurt the novel in so many ways.
What if the father hadn’t been a moron? Pygmy would’ve had more trouble carrying out his mission, and that complication would’ve had the possibility for comedic intrigue within it anyway.
What if the mother hadn’t been a drugged zombie who, if I’m reading the text right, walks around with a vibrator inside of her most of the time? Well, the answer is: I don’t know, because the character is so roundly shoved out of the way of the narrative and denied any kind of personhood that she might as well be a zombie.
What if the police hadn’t been as cliche in investigating the Columbine-shooting by a student at Pygmy’s high school? Maybe there would’ve been more heat on Pygmy earlier in the novel, creating further tension.
What if the priest, instead of being a stupid cliche who sleeps with under-age students hadn’t been that at all but an individual? Again, as with the mother–who knows? But I imagine it wouldn’t have been a bad thing. For example, it might’ve contributed to a better sequencing of progressions, because Pygmy undergoes a kind of transformation in the latter stages of the novel–a transformation that really doesn’t work unless he encounters more examples of basic decency from those around him. Instead, the priest’s fate is like what you’d find in a bad horror novel: bad guy gets what he deserves.
All of these characters could’ve been given nuance through the simple act of not depicting their actions as stupid. I write “actions” because the novel is narrated by Pygmy in a series of reports. It’s unlikely in that context that you could get the kind of nuance you find in a novel like Lolita, where the monster narrates but you still get deep characterization of the girl that exists within the monster’s narration (and yet independent of it for the careful reader). But, in their actions, the characters in Pygmy don’t have to be stupid in the context Palahniuk has chosen–nor is that stupidity required for the purposes of satire. For one thing, it’s entirely too easy to send up a U.S. society that not only has become a parody in some cases but self-parodies to a large degree (even the parodies often know what they’ve become and give a wink and nod to that). It would’ve been more interesting, and created less wild divergence in tone, to approach the core of each character with more integrity. Smart people get trapped in stupid societies, too. And, in a strange way, the layering of societal stupidity on top of continual character stupidity leeches the satire of its potential power. After all, why should we care about people when they seem to exist in the same flat context as the scenery?
Still, the novel does offer several pleasures for readers, even if they are mostly situational. As noted in the review, a scene involving a model United Nations is hilarious. Pygmy’s reports are often hilarious, too. The way in which Pygmy provides an outsider’s eye to the United States is often, at the paragraph level, ingenious and telling. The flashbacks to Pygmy’s indoctrination are mostly flat-out brilliant. The voice of Pygmy is pitch-perfect throughout.
But none of this matters in terms of the integrity of the novel as a whole because of the problems outlined above. An additional problem for me, after finishing Pygmy, came in the form of a question. Who is the audience for this novel? With repeated jokes about sodomy, with a rape victim who becomes enamored of the rapist, with more jokes about breasts and vibrators than I’ve ever seen in any novel, I began to wonder if the only real audience for the novel was unthinking teenage boys. (And perhaps I’m doing a disservice to teenage boys.) Because I really think many sections of the novel are prurient, and I’m by no means a prude.
I’m uncertain if this last judgment is a fair one, but it may be an indication that in sending up the United States Palahniuk wound up becoming the thing he’s trying to satirize. Regardless, the novel ultimately exasperated me because the author seems to have assembled all of the elements for creating a great and funny story…and then been unable to deploy them properly.
As usual, your mileage may vary, and I’d love to hear some thoughts from readers on the novel, in agreement or disagreement.