Friday, 17 September 2010

"Pygmy" by Chuck Pahlaniuk

If you were to try to recreate American culture based on the works of Chuck Pahlaniuk, you would get quite an odd picture.

His characters are individuals, defined by their history, but straining against their limits. The subservient missionary in "Survivor" has been trained all his life to serve, to please people, to do a good job. He's so eager to please people that he mimics a different disorder out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders each week to give his case worker something to diagnose. He's so wholesome that he erases his own wholesomeness to please others. The main character of "Diary" is a prisoner of her own history, which has been recorded before she experiences it.

His characters are invariably on their way to find infamy in the crazed world they inhabit, even though that's rarely their goal. In "Rant", characters try to gain literal immortality by creating such a big disaster that they are pushed outside of time. In "Choke", a sex addict attends meetings to hook up with other addicts and get their best ideas. In "Invisible Monsters", a woman unties the knot that holds her life together (her beauty) and embraces the chaos that follows as she travels around the country with people whose lives are similarly unraveling.

His characters spend their lives tiptoeing around their (and other people's) secrets, only to crash through them all at once. The famed ending of "Fight Club" is only one example. The main character in "Lullaby" is running from the tragic death of his family (for which he was unwittingly to blame). The main characters in "Haunted" are each prisoners of their secrets, which are exposed to the reader one by one, leaving us witnesses to their hidden shame and denial.

His latest book, "Pygmy", is all of these things and more. "Pygmy" follows the eponymous agent of an unspecified dictatorship (or communist regime) that has trained its best and brightest to infiltrate, undermine, and destroy America. Each of these are planted in a host family through an exchange student program. You don't have to be a spy to detect your (host) family's secrets, but it helps.

Pygmy's inner monologue reveals nothing but contempt (and humor) as each fresh part of America's underbelly is exposed to him.  He is a trained killer pulling his punches during the mock battles of spelling bees and dodge ball.  He sees all of us as worthy of punishment, and seeks to live a life infamous enough to merit the punishment "the deity" has already meted out for him.  He gains infamy, but not necessarily in the way he seeks, and not without encountering the usual assortment of oddly human characters (and caricatures) found in most Pahlaniuk novels.

Pygmy is a good example of Pahlaniuk's work and if you can get into the flow of the affected broken English Pygmy uses (which took me a while), it's an enjoyable and darkly humorous book.

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