Sunday, May 30, 2010

Not Much To Tell

Back in 2008, I wrote a brief review of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Snuff, and in looking over what I wrote at that time, I realized two important things. One, I was very diplomatic in discussing a book that I haven't thought about since the time I wrote the review, a title that would undoubtedly reveal many more problems in my mind if I were to re-read it. Two, as I mentioned in that piece, I interviewed Mr. Palahniuk in 2002. I was nineteen years old at the time, and I've finally realized that his gracious manners and politeness in talking with a starstruck teenager has shaped my opinions of his works. As a human being, I'll always respect him, just based on the hour and a half I spent with him eight years ago. However, his works have consistently gone downhill, and I cringe when I think back to my original interview, in which I balanced thoughtful questions and responses with gushing praise, calling Palahniuk "one of America's greatest living novelists," or something along those lines. I can't find the link to said piece, but that's just as well; in my early years devoted to books, I assumed I knew everything when in fact, I knew nothing. It reminds me of an old quote written by Roger Ebert in regard to John Waters. Ebert disliked a particular film by Mr. Waters, but was quick to mention how respectful and polite Waters can be...this is a case of confusing an artist with his or her work, but it's important for me to note that.

Palahniuk consistently publishes one book every spring, and this year, his newest novel is Tell-All. As I've done in recent years, I went into it with low expectations, partly in response to my blind praise of earlier times, and partly with hope that expecting to be disappointed will yield some bright spots. Tell-All is a dark satire of Hollywood memoirs, detailing the life of aging star Kathie Kenton, narrated primarily by her caretaker (and former Hollywood hopeful) Hazie Coogan. Much like Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard, Kenton believes that she is still relevant and able to regain her former status. Coogan does everything she can to help, from organizing every part of Kenton's life, being wary of potential male suitors, reading potential scripts, and, in a clever touch, dutifully etching every one of Kenton's physical flaws into a mirror with a diamond ring. The mansion in which they live, even though the story is set in the past, seems to resemble a more contemporary version of Desmond's abode in Billy Wilder's classic.

"Next to the bed, the night table built from a thousand hopeful dreams, those balanced screenplays, it supports two barbiturates and a double whiskey. Miss Kathie's hand stops petting and scratching the dog's muzzle; there the fur looks dark and matted. She pulls back her arm, and the towel slips from her head, her hair tumbling out, limp and gray, pink scalp showing between the roots. The green mask of her avocado face cracking in surprise (Palahniuk 16)."

Two other supporting characters are Lillian Hellman, an actress/director who casts herself in every project, and who happens to direct a Broadway show based on World War II that could be Kathie's big comeback. However, her younger lover, Webster Carlton Westward III, is possibly plotting Kathie's demise in order to publish a scandalous biography detailing their love life. Hazie is distrustful of the young man from the beginning, and the novel alternates between which is worse: the myriad of potential ways Westward could kill Kenton, or the effect of a posthumous tarnished legacy.

Like the majority of Palahniuk's works, there is really nothing to "review"--he takes a specific theme and expands a novel around it. This worked well with Fight Club, with its underlying looks at masculinity in the face of an ever-growing consumer culture. However, Tell-All is just that: a fictionalized tell-all. However, Palahniuk does a decent job with some of his usual styles. He has a tendency to repeat key phrases and sentences as a sort of chorus through a given novel. In this work, he repeats animal sounds, and while the initial explanation doesn't have much effect, the sounds work well throughout the course of the book.

"Beyond her first few words, Lillian's talk becomes one of those jungle sound tracks one hears looping in the background of every Tarzan film, just tropical birds and Johnny Weismuller and howler monkeys repeating. Bark, bark, screech...Emerald Cunard. Bark, growl, screech...Cecil Beaton (Palahniuk 3)."

The above passage also highlights two other recurring motifs. The book is written and styled like a long gossip column, with hundreds of names, phrases, and titles highlighted in boldfaced font. The intention is smart, but after awhile, it merely becomes a distraction. Palahniuk also weaves both real-life and fictionalized names from old Hollywood, including phrases from vintage columnists that are made up, but sound authentic.

"Miss Kathie's goal: to reduce until she becomes what Lolly Parsons calls nothing but 'tan and bones.' What Hedda Hopper calls a 'lipstick skeleton (Palahniuk 33).'"

These themes and wordplays will be very familiar to anyone who has read Palahniuk's works consistently, and anybody who considers him or herself a fan of his novels should enjoy this one. There are far worse writers around today, and while I freely admit some personal bias, I really don't have an opinion on Tell-All either way. I absolutely loved his novel Choke, and absolutely hated Pygmy. Perhaps that's the worst sign of all: apathy. I have long doubted that he'll ever write anything that will come close to the strength of his earlier works, but there's always hope. In the meantime, one can also hope that he realizes that he doesn't have to publish books on such a consistent schedule. A little more thought, editing, and research might yield a better novel. There's no doubt that Palahniuk has fun with his works, and for a quick read, Tell-All is easy to digest. To borrow a line from Choke: Guilty pleasure isn't the right phrase, but it's the first phrase that comes to mind.

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