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July 14, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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New Fiction: Snuff

Chuck Palahniuk, Snuff
(Random House, 2008)

Snuff, the latest novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke), features 600 men, one day of filming, and a woman’s quest for redemption in vaginal embolism.

Cassie Wright is a fading pornstar. She sees in the rise of high-definition television a grave threat for porn veterans: if every pore, every imperfection is to be picked up by the merciless camera, the audience’s fantasy of “perfect” women will be demolished. Comparing herself to the stars of silent films who lost popularity when the talkies amplified annoying accents and voices, Wright plans a farewell to the only career she feels qualified for. Her back catalogue still sells, and there’s always the merchandise, but a film so extreme could set someone up for life. But Wright is not doing it for herself.

There are four narrators, and their memoirs of the big day are intercut to form the overall narrative. The complicated format, lurid subject matter, and even more lurid visuals left me with the impression that Palahniuk is daring film producers to buy the rights to this story. Three narrators, Numbers 72, 137, and 600, are drawn from the, um… talent pool, which is likened more often than not to a herd of cattle. Your reviewer is a farmboy, and can assure you that cattle are less irritating. The fourth narrator, Sheila, is Wright’s assistant, and has the unenviable job of wrangler.

Palahniuk is at his best when contemplating the logistics of this whole depraved enterprise. Sheila keeps the peace, takes the bribes, and is the mastermind. She is the organizer, and the expert on vaginal embolism. (By the end of this book, you too can be an expert.) The novel is definitely about porn, but the most interesting images come from the basement where the men/cattle wait for their turns and interact.

Number 600 is a washed-up porn veteran who has a long history with Wright. He’s the one who dragged Wright into porn, and it’s his job to take her out. The preening asshole’s history with Wright seems intended as a critique of third-wave feminism, and as such, it degenerates into cliché. I’ll grant that the ethical questions of sex-positivity’s intersection with pornography are not yet fully resolved, but what amounts to a retelling of the Linda Lovelace story isn’t exactly a novel contribution. To anyone who’s already thought about this stuff, it isn’t even interesting.

Number 137 is a recently-disgraced actor whose manager found him the job, hoping to convince the industry that he’s straight. He shares Wright’s love of old movies, and is virtually an encyclopaedia of porn. Pop-culture esoterica is Palahniuk’s home turf, and between Number 137 and Sheila’s recounted conversations with Wright, plenty of delicious little vignettes from the world of film are served up.

Number 72 is young and has weird Oedipal things going on, and is therefore relied on to provide social commentary. To the extent that this consisted of pointing out middle-class hypocrisy on all things erotic, the only reaction I could muster was a yawn. Maybe there’s good fiction in that subject matter, but I haven’t read it yet. On the other hand, I did enjoy the little story about 72’s step-father’s train set. Ooh… cryptic. I apologize.

Near the end, Snuff starts falling apart. It’s a frustrating aspect of dick-lit (the opposite of chick-lit, but to be distinguished from dic-lit, which is the phrase for literary output by dictators) that its authors, perpetually in search of novelty, feel such horror of predictability that they are compelled to contrive endings contrary to all the set-up that precedes. Snuff suffers seriously from a tacked-on denouement of this type, and I’ve got to confess that my enjoyment of and respect for what was a very promising novel diminished as a result.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Snuff as a book to buy as a birthday gift or anything like that, but I won’t tell you not to buy it either. It’s a quick, light read with lots of fun stuff in it. Take it or leave it.

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About the Author ()

BK Drinkwater's actual origins are shrouded in mystery, but it is said that he sprang from the summit of Taranaki fully formed, four days after the birth of Aristotle. He resents having been overshadowed in this way.

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