June 12, 2008

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Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday, 197 pages)
By Nate Graziano news@hippopress.com

Philosophically, I don’t believe in panning books. As a writer, I understand the amount of time, thought and emotional expenditure that go into a piece of writing. Besides, reading is almost entirely subjective. Some books might not be my bag, but someone else — a smarter reader, perhaps — will devour them. I’ve penned many book reviews and never felt the need to rip someone else’s creative work to shreds.

That is until now.

I truly believe I have an ethical obligation to be completely honest with my opinions of shock-writer Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Snuff. In our present economy, I would hate to see someone throw away $25 on this thin, utterly absurd (and not in the clever and imaginative Kafka-esque sense) and pointless piece of, um, writing.

I have read some of Palahniuk’s other novels and short stories and knew coming into Snuff that he relies heavily on the car-accident effect in his fiction. In other words, he writes stories that are so warped, disturbing and disgusting that he makes it hard to turn away. Some critics have gone so far as to call him a black satirist for going head-on with cultural taboos, deviant behavior and human aberrations. I saw none of that in this book. I saw painful prose and gratuitous filth.

Everything you need to know about Snuff can be gleaned from the book’s back cover: “Six hundred dudes. One porn queen. A world record for the ages. A must-have movie for every discerning collector of things erotic. Didn’t one of us on purpose set out to make a snuff movie.” The story takes place backstage in a waiting area on the set of World Whore Three: The Whore to End All Whores, where a washed-up porn queen named Cassie Wright is trying to set the world record by copulating with 600 men consecutively. Riveting. The story is told through the accounts of four people involved in the mayhem: the aging porn prince Branch Bacardi; a washed-up television actor named Dan Banyan; an 18-year-old virgin holding wilting flowers, who may or may not be the child Cassie gave up for adoption 18 years before when she was first starting her career; and a young man-hater named Sheila who is Ms. Wright’s personal assistant and responsible for wrangling the 600 “dudes.”

Other than the obvious, the problems start with the fact that all of the first-person voices sound identical, only each character has some catchphrase that they overuse so the reader isn’t entirely lost when they’re speaking. Even more problematic was that it is near-impossible to care about any of these characters’ lives or see them as anything other than two-dimensional props being manipulated by the author in order to either gross out or shock the reader or deliver some inane piece of trivia about the pornography industry or the dirty secrets of silent and classical film stars.

Next, we move on to the plausibility issues. There are 600 men but for most of the novel, we only hear three of them speak. How is that? The whole setup of the book is ridiculous, and the ending — I won’t spoil it, in case you happen to be the 17-year-old boy bursting with testosterone who might actually enjoy this junk — lingers in the Land of The Stupid and Ludicrous.

Snuff, in all of its raunchiness, is entirely devoid of the one thing that makes good fiction come alive for readers: empathy. Not to belabor the point, but the subject could work if we were to care about these characters, see glimpses of ourselves in their sadness and ruins. But the characters are simply there to serve the plot — which only gains moderate momentum throughout — and in this sense, there’s nothing to invest in them. Like people in a porno film, these characters don’t seem like real people with the capacity to love and hurt and dream. They’re the pizza men that arrive at the doors of the lonely housewives as the bass music appears in the background.

I feel bad bashing this book, but while I’m writing this review on my lunch break at work, Chuck Palahniuk is probably hard at work on his new novel, which he has been paid quite generously to write. As with anything, there must be readership out there for this book, and these people are not going to care what some guy writing reviews has to say. But to those of you who might be considering buying this book, my advice: snuff it. D–Nate Graziano