On Palahniuk’s “Pygmy”


Illustration by Carl Gerhard

by Daniel Roberts

A smart friend, who nonetheless doesn’t often find time to read for pleasure, asked me recently if I had read any Chuck Palahniuk before. I sure have. And for whatever reason, the question of where to get started with this specific author is one that I’ve been asked quite a few times. I think a big part of the excitement with Palahniuk is that first moment of discovery: his books have striking, colorful covers (he has designer Rodrigo Corral to thank for that), and thus many of them sort of grab you from the shelves of a bookstore. In addition to that avenue, I have a bit of an unprovable theory that Palahniuk would rank high among authors that get big by word of mouth (at least, gee, it certainly isn’t wonderful reviews in high-minded publications that have made him wildly popular). And indeed, it was from a friend’s recommendation that I first discovered the novelist. Regardless of how a person first hears of the guy, there are undoubtedly many readers out there who have heard of Palahniuk and wondered how best to enter his wacky world. Allow me to guide you to his best book (among many clunkers), a sleeper hit: Pygmy.

Like everyone else, I read Fight Club back in high school as soon as I saw and loved the film adaptation. It’s a super-creative, edgy book that is indeed perfect for high school. It’s also one of those rare cases where the book is great, and the film adaptation is equally great (probably better, in this case). It’s a novel that gets you fired up.

Then I sort of forgot this writer existed and focused on authors who, if I may, are almost inarguably better: literary heavyweights like Michael Chabon, J.M. Coetzee, and David Foster Wallace. Palahniuk, in contrast, writes in short, basic sentences, constantly repeats phrases and tropes, and nine times out of ten seems to go for a gross-out humor that seems more smarmy than skillful. But while working at a summer camp after I had finished my sophomore year of college, a big Palahniuk fan (the author’s biggest devotees consider themselves part of “The Cult”) recommended I read Choke.

It was pretty good. It’s written in a very similar style to Fight Club, nothing that blew me away, but very entertaining. Choke was about a sex-addict who makes himself choke in restaurants so as to get someone to save him, and then makes the person feel a part of his life, in order to later extort money from them. There’s also a Jesus complex involved, and a goofy best friend busy building a home with stones. It’s quite a plot. I was happy enough with the weird, yet riveting reading experience that I went ahead and read another Palahniuk novel immediately: Survivor.

This time around, the narrator is a guy named Tender Branson (who sure sounds like Victor, the narrator of Choke) who tells his story as he plummets to Earth in an empty, crashing plane. Tender’s story is one of celebrity worship, drugs, and commercialization. A White Noise for the masses. Again, an exciting story, but, like with Choke, Palahniuk pushes every funny turn of phrase, idiom or philosophy to the point of inducing eye-rolls. When Branson explains how he likes to ignore the phone calls of his boss while he is cooking, for example, he says:

The speakerphone rings while I’m setting the lobsters. The speakerphone rings as I turn up the heat just another notch. The speakerphone rings while I wash my hands. The speakerphone rings while I go pour myself a cup of coffee and mix in cream and sugar.

Enough, enough!

Palahniuk’s books, at least in the order in which I read them, continued downhill from there. After slogging through the disgusting vignettes in Haunted—a series of linked stories told by the damaged, disturbed members of an artist colony, which is a twisted, scatological Canterbury Tales of a framing device—I swore I’d never read another. But then Snuff came out, with its provocative, alluring cover, and I caved. It was a mistake. The premise of Snuff is that a pornstar has decided she wants to set a record for having sex with the most men consecutively, and, oh, also, she wants to die in the process. One by one, the 600 men make their way in, and as it turns out, one of them may be her son (if you think that’s bad, wait for the vivid descriptions of men that touch their sweaty balls and then reach for a potato chip from the communal bowl). Needless to say, it wasn’t great. It was, like many Palahniuk novels, an exciting read that ends in regret, much like a feverish, drunken one-night-stand.

The New York Times began its review of Snuff thusly: “What the hell is going on?” and continued: “There’s a glaring absence of finesse. A paragraph-long description of difficulty with excretory hygiene is offered by one ‘dude’ as an analogy for a bad day, then repeated almost word for word at the end of the book. It’s not that great an analogy.”

Palahniuk hasn’t had much luck with critics, who seem to concur about the whole gross-out thing. One selling point of Haunted, touted on the book jacket and all over the web, is the high number of people that have fainted from hearing one of its stories read aloud. The story, “Guts,” involves a boy who sits on the bottom of a pool to masturbate, only to have his innards sucked out through the drain. His own intestines subsequently entangle him, leaving him trapped and unable to swim to the surface. Palahniuk, it seemed, was a one-trick pony that had truly run out of gags.

With Pygmy, however, which came out after Snuff, he rolled out a new trick. Believe it or not, it paid off. Interestingly, the Times didn’t review Pygmy, as though someone realized it was pretty solid and they didn’t want to ruin the paper’s streak of verbal slaughter with regards to this man. (It did review Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, and Snuff; that’s every novel he wrote from 2001 to 2008. After skipping Pygmy and Tell-All, it returned, to somewhat positively review his latest, Damned.)

There is a case to be made that Pygmy isn’t just a surprisingly good novel from an otherwise middling writer, but is in fact a very smart, inventive work of art. It’s now the first (and really, the only) book I recommend when friends ask me what they should read by Chuck Palahniuk.

Photograph by James Moore

To begin with, Palahniuk created a new language for the book, very much akin to the slang of Alex and his cronies in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Palahniuk’s Pygmy talk is a bit more clunky, though intentionally so, and keeps far closer to English, but is just the right level of offensive (it’s meant to be the sentence construction of a foreigner) so as to be laugh-out-loud funny and, often, clever as hell.

The title-character, “Pygmy,” is a trained terrorist (that doesn’t give anything away) of age thirteen who has been sent to America to live with a host family and “infiltrate” American society while building a WMD and preparing an attack on the United States. It’s a classic Chuck setup and, obviously, hilarity ensues. What’s new is that, to the book’s credit, the humor comes from genuinely ironic or wacky situations without the gross-out attempt inherent in other Palahniuk plots.

Pygmy tells the story in a jilted foreigner’s English: all the correct words are there, but out of order. At first, your impulse may be to think of the confusing syntax as a cheap gimmick, something uninspired and over-ambitious (I kept comparing it unfavorably to A Clockwork Orange, which, again, is probably a greater artistic achievement, as it contains a newly invented lexicon, as opposed to Pygmy, which just rearranges the proper diction). However, as the book goes on, understanding the sentences is no longer a challenge. The reader grows used to it, and reading becomes a pleasure as we begin to see just why the lingual style is perfect for deadpan humor, such as when Pygmy’s host sister, whom he lusts after, asks him to be in the Model United Nations assembly as a favor to her. “Swear, I’ll owe you big-time,” she tells him. He then thinks to himself: “Perhaps as redeem favor, fulfill obligation, could host sister open vagina for deposit seed of operative me.” Yes, it’s a bit graphic, but no more than an Apatow film. This is not about intestines being sucked out through someone’s asshole by a pool drain. It’s also, in a strange way, cute. Pygmy’s jumbled language endears us to him, and you’ll find yourself loving the character the entire way through.

As Pygmy tries to learn about the Americana he sees around him, so too do we get to see how our country—its customs, social trends, and institutions—would look to a completely uninformed, naive stranger (or at least, we get one very plausible take on how it might look). When Pygmy describes things, we laugh, but we also see some scary truth in his reactions. Thus the novel is a social commentary, and although this is what Palahniuk always tries to do, never has he achieved it so well. Pygmy reflects during his first gym class:

American education rituals especial efficient at task segregation youth of superior intellect removed from youth gifted superior physical prowess. Best example, ritual label as ‘dodgeball.’ Therein all peer males engage mock battle under witness fertile peer females… males boasting superior musculature inflict injure upon males typical of superior intellect although suffering inferior height-to-weight ratio, body mass index, and stature.

Sure, accounts such as this one are very funny, but there is also the opportunity to pause and think that yes, dodgeball probably would look pretty bizarre and pointless to someone completely unfamiliar.

When Pygmy thinks back to the rigorous training he underwent in his home nation, he recalls how the commanding officer informed them: “American devils no squeamish of any possible genital acts. Forever tunneling rodents inserted rectums even top famous movie actors.”

There are problems with the novel, of course. Pygmy continually recalls quotes of famous dictators and tyrants, like Lenin, Hitler, Trotsky and Mao. He quotes them to the reader during times when the relevance of the quote is absurdly obvious. Then, after mentioning the quote, he repeats the quote, verbatim, at the end of the chapter. This happens in nearly every chapter. Repeating a quote, phrase, or droll one-liner at the beginning and end of a chapter is a gag Palahniuk loves dearly (see Survivor, Snuff, and Fight Club) and as in the past, it is overused and overbearing in Pygmy. The host sister herself tells him near the end: “Real smarts begin when you quit quoting other people.” Palahniuk ought to listen.

In the book’s pivotal scene, a high-tech vibrator goes rogue and starts attacking kids, running around, hissing steam and spouting fire. It’s too much of a stretch for a novel that is otherwise very grounded in reality.

But Pygmy is worth it, and it’s an entrée to a writer who, this book would suggest, is capable of so much more than stories like “Guts” or raunchy displays of perversion like Snuff. It’s funny, provocative, and it actually has what you’d call a traditional “happy ending,” which is relatively rare for a Palahniuk book.

The only other Palahniuk book that had truly impressed me was Rant. I mention it at this late point because only now, after thinking of Pygmy in a critical, serious way, do I see the major similarity: Rant, too, was written in an experimental form. The novel is an “oral history” comprised not of chapters but of brief, quick statements by a myriad of characters. It also deals with time travel and rests on a confusing series of twists.

Pygmy, certainly his strongest achievement, is also an experiment, and it’s one that works well. If Chuck Palahniuk keeps experimenting, he will continue to impress, and perhaps he’ll eventually earn a balls-out, insult-free rave from the Times. Don’t bet money on it, but hey.

About the Author:

Daniel Roberts is a magazine reporter and book critic in New York, originally from Massachusetts. He tweets @readDanwrite and blogs here.