Chuck Palahniuk, 1999
So this was an interesting read, by turns frustrating and insightful. It's my first exposure to Palahniuk (best known for having written Fight Club), and there were enough interesting ideas and well-written passages to get me to try another book another day.
At first I thought he was leaning too heavily on the "shock value" of body modification as a metaphor, but that smoothed out after a while. What didn't ever get easier to take were the couple of verbal/rhetorical devices that pervade the novel from start to finish. One of these - the use of the phrase "Jump to" at every change of setting - would have been mildly annoying but forgivable in a shorter novel, but in a 300-pager it's just tedious. Yes, I get that it fits with the overarching themes of the book, but come on.
On another dynamic level, Palahniuk quite effortlessly sets up a very unreliable narrator, whom I trusted less and less as the story progressed. It was really quite masterfully done, until the last 30-40 pages, when the whole thing explodes, all doubts are removed, and it felt like I was getting an authorial pie in the face. Again, I get it, but it comes across as trickery for the sake of trickery.
There are a few other gimmicks and structures like this, and their use reminds me of the aesthetic of some of the so-called minimalist composers. There's a certain ideal of obviousness - a feeling that the audience should always be in on the artist's tricks. Nothing wrong with this at all of course, but I have a harder time adjusting to the idea in a novel than in music, for some reason.
Of course this is also part of the point, I think. As readers, we're supposed to feel uncomfortable and know precisely why. Within the world of the text, personalities are disconnected things, made up of isolated cells which can be shuffled and reshuffled. Any sense of richness, unity, or complexity of mind is an illusion. A depressing concept to be sure, and one that rings just true enough to be highly disconcerting.
So there's quite a lot to like about the book, a lot of risks were taken, and it certainly got me thinking (which is more than a lot of books do for me). Maybe rough around the edges, but certainly a worthwhile read.
May 20, 2007