King of the skewer

BY BRIAN DAU | MAY 12, 2009 7:26 AM

Weapons of mass destruction come in small packages in Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy.

America needs Chuck Palahniuk. Since the release of Fight Club in 1996, he is unmatched in his ability to skewer our many idiosyncrasies, bludgeon them into a narrative, and present them back to us in novel form. He has an uncanny way of exposing the raw flesh just beneath the skin of our culture not seen since Bret Easton Ellis. Nobody “tells it like it is” quite like Palahniuk does. With the release of Pygmy, Palahniuk’s 10th novel in 13 years, the Washington native shows his skewering forks are as sharp as ever.

Pygmy is a 13-year-old foreign-exchange student placed in the Midwest, with the caveat that he is secretly a terrorist plotting to unleash “Operation Havoc” (not to be confused with Fight Club’s “Project Mayhem”), on millions of unsuspecting American citizens. Pygmy’s native country is left ambiguous, though Russia or China (or some strange mashup of the two) seem the likely hosts.

At any rate, Pygmy’s first language is definitely not English, which is perhaps why Palahniuk decided not to write the novel in English, either. Those familiar with the crude approximations of translated English presented on signs and products in Japan will immediately recognize Pygmy’s prose. An average sentence in the novel reads: “All violate United States secure port of entry having success.” This continues for 240 pages.

The text’s difficulty will determine who will love or hate this novel. For the author’s fans who choose to punish themselves and decipher the writing, there is plenty of Palahniuk gold to unearth. There’s the trademark motif like Survivor’s cleaning tips or Fight Club’s weapon recipes: Here most chapters, or “dispatches,” quote tyrants or figures such as Hitler, Pinochet, or Mao Zedong. And, per usual, nothing is sacred for Palahniuk. Pygmy sees clergy, schoolyard bullies, and Wal-Mart greeters alike as grotesque figures.

The challenging writing isn’t always a strain, however. Some of the scenes are downright hilarious, especially in the miscommunications between the budding terrorist and his American-dream host family. The awkward interactions between middle-school students become something entirely different when Pygmy applies his knowledge of evolutionary psychology (you’ll never think of dodge ball in the same way again). Also, it seems appropriate for Palahniuk to show that although Pygmy doesn’t understand the things in our culture we take for granted (to him, Listerine is a kind of cologne), we don’t really understand him very well either.

The best thing to say about Pygmy is it continues to do what Palahniuk does best. Anyone who already enjoys his work will find plenty to like here. However, if this novel is your first foray into Palahniuk’s twisted worldview, there are better places to start. After 2007’s Rant and 2008’s Snuff, it seems Palahniuk is comfortable with putting out a new book every year, and Pygmy proves his artistic ability hasn’t been compromised by the strict schedule. Let’s hope he can keep it up, because it’s good to know somebody’s waiting, skewer brandished, to pop our inflated egos.

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