Believe it or not, Chuck Palahniuk’s latest fails to be as much of a gross-out as I’d imagined it would be. Coming off of Haunted, a loosely-knit collection of short pieces that includes the story of a man who disembowels himself through his own anus during an act of masturbation, then subsequently impregnates his own little sister by accident, I’d figured being the reigning King of Gross-Out was Palahniuk’s new bag.
Turns out it is and it isn’t. It’s true that Snuff, the new novel, is set in the world of hardcore gonzo pornography, and that Palahniuk has obviously done his usual meticulous job of digging for trivia and fast-facts that will leave you scratching your head and wondering if he’s putting you on. Beyond that basic high concept, however, seekers of cult vile transgressiveness could probably ask for more.
The basic premise is this: Porn queen Cassie Wright wants to break a record. She wants to be the first woman in history to perform 600 sex acts with 600 different men in one sitting. The story opens with the 600 assembled and waiting for their curtain call, and it’s narrated from the perspective of three or four key players. But there’s a catch. It seems nobody actually believes that Cassie can actually complete this feat and live — including Cassie herself.
Chuck is still Chuck, of course, and so he paints his porn set not as a steamy, erotic underworld but as a sordid, unsanitary pit soaked with sweat, semen, urine, and the old-feet stench of unwashed body parts. His porn stars are aging, sagging, and stained with fake tanning solution; his eager amateurs are basement-dwelling trolls in stained underpants, hopped up on so much Viagra that the veins in their eyeballs are ready to burst.
Beyond this mildewed setting, however, it’s hard to see what Palahniuk is trying to say. Maybe there’s something about the nature of families in here. Maybe there’s something about the inherent hollowness of the pornography business. Almost, but not really.
Unfortunately, after a far more daring turn in Rant, Palahniuk seems to have fallen back on his tried-and-true formula for this one: Assemble the 3×5 cards full of trivia, cookie-cut a few characters, work that famous voice up to full speed, and let the novel write itself. At least at 197 pages you’re never asked to bear with it long enough to feel cheated. But it’s no more satisfying than eating a bag of Doritos and no more illuminating than reading the empty bag afterward.
There’s nobody else who does what Chuck Palahniuk does. Anyone who tried would be called on the carpet as a faker right away. It’s just a pity that after 11 novels he can’t seem to muster the ambition to take a chance on a new direction. Rant seemed like a good start, but Snuff feels like Survivor all over again.
One thing Palahniuk’s cult-novelist status does seem to have earned him, however, is some impressive book design. The hardcover of Snuff, as designed by Michael Collica, is a slick package. The typography, the foil embossing, the endpapers, even the choice of brown ink instead of black for the text are all nice touches. As an object, this book is as pretty as a designer wine glass. Too bad it’s half empty.