book review: pygmy

Pygmy is the first Chuck Palahniuk book I’ve read in years. And if I didn’t have a history of liking his books, there’s no way I would have finished it. There’s not a lot of substance and he tries masking that lack by a gimmicky writing style instead of an interesting story.

Pygmy is the nickname (none other is given) for a 12 year old exchange student from some unnamed authoritarian country who’s come with a group of other operatives to commit a gigantic terrorist act in the U.S. They’re all in an American middle school and Pygmy sees the horrible American oppressors for what they are. The mom is addicted to vibrators, the dad is slack jawed and obese, and both of them get roofied by their kids, “pig dog” brother and “cat sister.” There’s sodomy, pedophilia and a school shooting, none of which are very pleasant.

One of the problems with Palahniuk books is how they all kind of feel the same, but they’ve been trying to top each other in shocking content as time goes by. He tries to get away from the sameyness in Pygmy by using a stilted horrible writing style bent on parodying how a non-native English speaker might write using literal translations from a language that had a very different grammar than English. The narrator says things like “legs of operative me made small parade through no healed door” for “I walked into the room.” There is no respite from this apart from the very few times you get a line of dialogue from some other character. It forces you to parse every little thing, which is sort of the point, as you’re supposed to be re-analyzing the grand old American life through this character who hates it. So the unpleasantness is intentional.

The thing that sort of moved me from being a big Palahniuk fan to a person who’ll read his books if they’re around and free was seeing him do a reading/Q&A thing a couple of years ago. He was very intent on proving his edginess by talking and writing about things no one talks about. I don’t mind gross horrible stories but in his words he’s going for a pure visceral reaction. Once I realized he’s not interested in challenging the intellect but only the intestines a lot of the shine wore off.

And there’s not a lot to this book really. “America is corrupt and soulless. Pygmy’s country is worse. Authoritarianism is bad. Thinking for yourself is good.” Thanks there, Chuck.

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