Monday, July 27, 2009

Book Review: Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk

For official record, American education rituals especial efficient at task segregation youth of superior intellect removed from youth global superior physical prowess. Best example, ritual label as "dodgeball." Therein all peer males engage mock battle under witness fertile peer females. Commencement of ritual, physical superior males select best combtants for accompany into battle, thus ranking all from most-best to least desirable for reproduction during female note close attention. ---Pygmy, by Chuck Palahniuk

I find postmodern texts pretty annoying.

Admittedly, this statement is somewhat hypocritical on my part, considering my list of top ten books includes Gantenbein, a story where where the narrator changes characters by saying "let's pretend I'm someone else!", then goes on as that person for a hundred pages or so; House of Leaves, which is a piece of fiction pretending to be an edited version of an edited version of a dissertation regarding a documentary that was never made and tells a little under half its story in narrative footnotes; and the original postmodern text, Tristam Shandy, in which the narrator attempts to tell his life story and over the course of hundreds of pages, gets about a year or so after his birth.

These texts are GOOD postmodern texts. A postmodern text is, to use a very handwavey definition, a text that undermines itself, either through fractured narrators, emphasis on its state as a text, use of magic realism, or a number of other tricks. (Homework assignment: All blogs are postmodern texts. Discuss.) I say tricks because that's what the NOT GOOD postmodern texts come down to--little gimmicks that try to distract you from realizing that what you're reading is all style and no substance. And with all that in mind, I think you can see where we're going in regard to Palahniuk's Pygmy. Pygmy is, at best, a mediocre postmodern text.

The plot is simple enough. The title character is a teenage terrorist, sent by his state to undermine America and destroy as many Americans as possible. The book is presented through first person narrative, all told in the style transcribed at the beginning of the post, which gets a little tiresome during its 241 pages. Nicknamed "Pygmy" by his oblivious host family, the 'protagonist' tells his story in the form of mission progress reports, occasionally interspersed with flashbacks to his training in his unnamed home country. Through the course of the novel, Pygmy goes to church services, attends school, visits a shopping mall and experiences his first Thanksgiving. And all this in a style that abandons articles as wasteproducts of an imperial nation. (Homework assignment: any ergodic text is a postmodern text. Discuss.)

In addition to being a postmodern text, Pygmy is also a satire, and it's on that level that the book is most successful. The targets are simultaneously American decadence and terrorist extremism, and the shift between the two occurs at a breakneck pace. I liked Palahnuik's observation that the model UN is basically like Halloween, in that it's more about dressing up in "wacky" foreign clothes than anything else, and there's definitely many satirical jabs at the Western education system, as this post's starting quotation can attest. There's also a countermove against the satire, in Palahnuik's small but noticeable attempts to humanize Pygmy, drawn out mostly through his relationship with his host sister and elements in the flashback. For the most part, it's an impressively deft touch, as it works very counter to the tone of the novel. The two elements--satire and humanization--almost, almost, balance each other out, right up until the end, when the balance gets tossed out the window. (Homework assignment: All satires are postmodern texts, and vice versa. Discuss.)

Palahniuk, for those not in the know, is the author of book Fight Club, and the movie of the same name is as quintessentially postmodern as anything can be without actually being a Thomas Pynchon novel. The movie serves as a useful reference point, as Pygmy follows largely the same beats. There's skewed takes on established practices, only instead of self-help groups, it's school dances and model UNs. There's gross, over the top violence, only instead of a fight club, it's roofies and anal rape. (I wish I was exaggerating.) And that violence is channelled into a viscious, almost nihlistic, attack on the state, through a student shooting and the overall terrorist plot. If you liked Fight Club... well, then you still might hate Pygmy. But if you DIDN'T like Fight Club, you're better off doing something else.

(Homework assignment: watch Fight Club.)

For official record, operative me wishing capitalist swine readers Later Days.

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