ARTS

  /  

May 19, 2009

Palahniuk's social satire sears, but characters leave us cold

Chuck Palahniuk has made a career of social satire that, despite its heavy dependence on shock value, seems to hit on some fundamental truth. From Fight Club’s lampoon of repressed male aggression to Choke’s parodies of charity and sexual deviance, his books deliver blistering social commentary, if not high literature, with more than a few poop jokes thrown in. His latest book, Pygmy, follows this well-tread path as it attacks the terrorism-fueled xenophobia peculiar to America.

The book’s eponymous hero of sorts is a 13-year-old boy named Pygmy who recently immigrated to the United States. The only problem is that Pygmy, who is trained in deadly martial arts and advanced chemistry, is a terrorist. And make no mistake about it: He very much hates us for our freedom.

The plot revolves around a vast terrorist plot aim at the destruction of Washington, D.C. Pygmy, ostensibly a foreign student, is one of many operatives sent by an unnamed country (whichever country indoctrinates its young terrorists with pithy aphorisms from Marx and Pinochet) to compete in a giant science fair. Pygmy’s ultimate goal is to complete his science project, which will in turn destroy the city.

Divided into 36 dispatches from the adolescent terrorist mastermind, the novel is written in Pygmy's voice throughout. One has to admire Palahniuk’s stylistic discipline here. It turns out that Pygmy, while well versed in chemistry, is not so well versed in English. Consider Pygmy's recounting of his hand-to-hand combat skills: “Operative me ready. Could be simple two pointed elbows to father’s chest, one-two, kam-pow, and three days, by after next today will father be…dead. Fast as easy, young child able to do.” Pygmy is not light or fast reading. This is involved work, but well worth it in the end.

Also excellent is the razor-sharp wit that Palahniuk brings to Pygmy’s observations of us, the average ugly American. Pygmy says that his surrogate father smells of Viagra and Propecia in their first meeting. During a trip to Wal-Mart, Pygmy notes: “For official record, during American winter youth attend compulsive levels of teaching; during Summer, American youth must attend shopping mall.” Pygmy’s exchange with the archetypal elderly greeter, in which he demands politely to know where they stock their automatic weapons, is absolutely hilarious.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Chuck Palahniuk book if the satire weren’t accompanied by a good measure of sadomasochistic or scatological humor, and this is perhaps the greatest weakness of the book. Not that my delicate sensibilities were offended reading Pygmy, but the shock value sometimes detracts from what makes a truly successful satire, like Fight Club. At the end of such satires we empathize with the characters, no matter how conflicted we feel about their actions or motivations.

Though Palahniuk creates an oddly loveable, murderous terrorist, he does not allow the reader to completely empathize with him. The blame could be placed on the various smoke screens, which a more completely characterized Pygmy might hide behind: the jumbled English or the emphasis on shock and gore. Pygmy is not plot or character-driven; it's main appeal is in the funny and subversive observations that Palahniuk makes about “average” American life. It's this lack of focus on character development that makes Pygmy little more than an entertaining read.