Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: Tell-All

I would like to think of Chuck Palahniuk as a demented cook. He takes pleasure in extracting the glitz and grit of ordinary human lives and mixing them with the most vulgar, most risqué ingredients he could come up with. He is obsessed with the presentation of his work—sometimes he would mold it into a ‘coma’ diary form, sometimes into an interview form, sometimes into that frenzied Engrish A-Clock-Work-Orangesque form. He would set this on a silver tray, plaster an innocent smile on his face, and bask himself in the enjoyment of watching his readers flinch and get queasy after taking a bite of his new, experimental cuisine. The best drink to have on the table when you’re helping yourself to a Palahniuk dish is a cupful of antidote.

Tell-All is Palahniuk’s latest gourmet creation. Presented in the style of a screenplay (with “acts” and “scenes” instead of chapters), it tells the story of Hazie Coogan, personal assistant/adviser/creator of the aging Hollywood actress Katherine Kenton. For decades, Hazie has been a crutch to Miss Kathie, always helping the star to get up and romp after a collection of multiple cosmetic surgeries and a string of failed marriages. When danger comes in the form of the handsome young man Webster Carlton Westward III, Hazie must do everything to save Miss Kathie from him—especially when they discover he is plotting to kill Miss Kathie for the completion of the actress’ “lie-ography” or a tell-all memoir.

I find the premise intriguing. As expected, the book has twisted and bizarre elements of the usual Palahniuk fare; also hard to miss is how dark humor and seriousness constantly eclipse each other in almost every scene. However, unlike Choke or Diary or Rant, this does not begin with a spark that will snag your interest from the very start. I find the first eighty pages a tad slow and monotonous. It sounds like a too-long introduction to me, and the story only started to charge along at a gallop upon the discovery of the sleazy, self-authored tell-all of Webster. I couldn’t put the book down when I reached that point.

The format is enjoyable at first, but the constant name-dropping—mostly of vintage Hollywood stars and gossip columnists—made me lose interest in it for quite a while. I mean, if I have to look up every unfamiliar name I see there just so I’d be able to get the joke, where’s the fun in that? I’m not very well-versed in show biz, to be honest.

I think the true genius of this book lies in how well Palahniuk makes a puppet of one character to make puppets of other characters—and in doing so he’s making a puppet of the reader's mind, too. It’s all about manipulation. In a world shaped by this author’s hands, it’s hard to pinpoint who the real psychopaths and villains are, with everyone posessing extremely peculiar thought processes and actions. By the time you have made up your mind who you are going to hate, Palahniuk will take off the veil and you’ll be surprised to know who’s pulling the strings. The whole novel is all about “perfuming” this character’s name, after all.

That said, I think this is a good read. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Choke or Diary, but it did leave some mark in me. (Pygmy’s still on the shelf and I’m going to pick it up when I think my mind’s ready for some brain-torture. THE ENGRISH!)

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