May 20, 2008

Trivia snuffs out character development

[img id="80630" align="alignleft"] To date, Chuck Palahniuk has made 73 people faint just by reading them his short story "Guts," a tale of worst-case masturbation scenarios. On the book tour for his new novel Snuff, the Fight Club author might just break his own record.

In fact, record-breaking is something of a theme in Snuff. The novel chronicles the last day of porn queen Cassie Wright's career, which she commemorates by attempting to set a serial fornication record. We see the events of the day's all-male open casting call unfold through the eyes of four narrators—Sheila, Cassie's personal assistant, and the actors numbering 72nd, 137rd, and 600th in line to, er, help Cassie achieve her goal.

Like "Guts," Snuff will test even the strongest-stomached of readers. Palahniuk takes the world of porn into high definition—or, as it were, Blu-Ray—refusing to forgo any description of odors, fluids, and skin. This is a book about sex, but the content isn't sexy. The typical reader's reaction on any given page is going to be some variation on revulsion.

While it would be a stretch to call Snuff a pleasant read, there's no denying that it's an interesting one. At times, the novel reads like an encyclopedia of erotic trivia. If Hitler's invention of the sex doll and the Vatican's collection of sculptural gonads titillate your interest, then Snuff's collection of anecdotes on sex, death, and show business is probably its biggest selling point. One can almost imagine Palahniuk working from alphabetized lists of punning porno titles and sexually-charged epithets.

Palahniuk has said that all his books are about lonely people trying to make connections, and Snuff certainly fits that mold. The novel traces the back stories of its pathetic characters, getting to the bottom of whatever went so wrong that they ended up here, at the world's biggest gang bang.

Each character carries an item that seems to encapsulate his or her personality. Sinister porn veteran Mr. 600 wears a locket containing a pill, which he sardonically claims will cure anything. Mr. 72, a barely-legal Oedipal case who believes himself to be Cassie's "porn baby," carries a wilting bouquet of white roses for his would-be mother that serves as a tidy loss-of-innocence metaphor. And Mr. 137, an ex-prime-time star on the verge of a Viagra overdose, clutches a canvas autograph hound for Cassie to sign, hoping that her star power will revive his scandal-marred career. The characters are united both in their lust for Cassie and in their on-again, off-again desire to kill her.

The problem with Snuff's characters is that they're much more colorful than they are compelling. Palahniuk's constant trivia references are partly to blame; while they set the tone of the author's signature minimalism, they come at the expense of the characters' own voices.

Sheila, for example, starts out strong. Her academic observations and feminist awareness may have some readers hearkening back to Ali Davis, author of the hilarious and insightful web diary "True Porn Clerk Stories." But the resemblance is short lived, as we quickly lose Sheila's story in an endless sea of her boss's endless anecdotes about celebrity make-up tricks.

We do reach some level of understanding of each character. We see the exact moments when they become outcasts, and we find out just what makes them tick in their particular offbeat ways. But our empathy is short-lived—the momentary insights end, and we're back to the onslaught of trivia references and explicit imagery. That Palahniuk manages to dredge up even a shred of compassion in us for these wretched personalities is quite a feat of writing skill, so it's unfortunate that he chooses to push these shreds right back down as soon as they surface.

Snuff's strength lies in its originality and, to a lesser extent, in the amount of research that went into its creation. What's disappointing about the novel is that it seems to confirm many critics' impression that Palahniuk is just a shock writer.

In fact, Palahniuk's first novel proved that making people faint and making them care aren't mutually exclusive goals. Tyler Durden doesn't say he wants to wipe his rear end with the Mona Lisa just for the shock value—there's a compelling ideology built up behind that statement. Snuff's characters, on the other hand, are driven either by uncomplicated motives like lust or careerism, or by some incomprehensible raison d'être that just comes off as depravity. We sympathize with Cassie for much of the novel, but by the end it's hard to remember why we thought she was worth saving.

In other words, Fight Club is still king. But if you can stand for an occasionally fictional research paper on the porn industry, Snuff may be worth a look.