Monday, 30 May 2011

Sweat Collects: Chuck Palahniuk's 'Snuff'

(Written to convince the editor of bookmunch to make me a contributor)

With ‘Snuff’, Chuck Palahniuk continues to explore a kind of post-modern macabre where all human relations descend into ridiculous and gross depravity. Porn legend, Cassie Wright, is intending to end her porn career by putting Annabel Chong to shame- having sex with six hundred men and breaking the world record. The event unfolds through the perspective of four interlocking narratives; three nameless men waiting for their turn plus Sheila, the talent wrangler who initially pitched the film to Cassie and is in charge of organising all six-hundred ‘pud-pullers’ as she calls them. The male characters range from the naïve to the disgusting- Palahniuk is fantastic at creating everyday monsters, characters whose inhumanity are never as showy or glamorous as say, Bret Easton’s Ellis’s. Instead, they are empty and cold in a dull and pathetic way and Palahniuk manages to convey this superbly in sparse and unforgiving prose. Sheila too, seems as cold and detached as anyone who has spent too long turning sex into a commodity but her cynical denouncements of the men around her and the sex industry are both humorous and astute: ‘Going to Spring break at Fort Lauderdale, getting drunk and flashing your breasts isn’t an act of personal empowerment. It’s you, so fashioned and programmed by the construct of patriarchal society that you no longer know what’s best for yourself’.

Of course, none of these characters are quite what they seem and as much as they think that they’re in control of the preceding actions, they’re not. As Mr. 600 says, ‘didn’t one of us on purpose set out to make a snuff movie’. Even the wannabe Macaveillian of the novel cannot anticipate how things end. ‘Snuff’ essentially portrays individuals who desire power but are in fact trapped- literally and figuratively- in a squalid environment. Palahniuk’s ability to invoke just how gross this environment is, is effective to the point of nausea: ‘Dudes swallowing and farting at the same time. Belching up gas bubbles of black coffee from their guts. Breathing out through wads of Juicy Fruit gum’. Human beings are nothing more than animals bathing in their own filth and Palahniuk makes sure that the reader can feel this in their own gut.

Most of the novel involves waiting. The woman all these characters are circling around does not appear until towards the end of the novel. Until then, Cassie Wright looms as a spectre over the character’s memories, her image as porn star queen continually re-circulated through the TV monitors erected in the green room. As might be expected from a porn star, she exists as a dream or a fantasy, a springboard to restart a faded career or a maternal sanctuary. But Cassie does, in fact, have her own plans for how her porn career and her final film will end and Palahniuk builds up the tension with a deft hand as the reader is drawn compellingly forth towards a culmination that has car-crash appeal. You just can’t look away. And actually, the ending is still unlike anything that was expected. It is brilliantly deranged and dark to the point of gothic. It manages to be both surprising and disturbing, an absurd and gruesome finale to a novel that begins quietly as a study on the mundane barrenness of a culture where sex is product.

Any good? The source material, detached prose and underlying nihilism will be nothing new to fans but with ‘Snuff’, Palahniuk proves that there is still plenty to found when mining this particular type of dark vein. And he still has the ability to shock.

© 2011 Emma Mould

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Squirrel Thing

Connie Converse is the sound of aloneness (not loneliness) grown so familiar it has become part of the furniture. The characters she sings of, the roving women and the playboy’s of the Western world wear their separateness like a badge of honour. They can entwine themselves briefly into other people, sample them like a light snack but they know that this can only be temporary, delicious but temporary. As we wander through the grass, we can hear each other pass but we’re far apart, far apart in the dark. Love is only a masquerade and you can hear in her imperfect, detached voice that she knows this. Her voice is not beautiful, her guitar playing not particularly accomplished, but there is by turns a resigned weariness or a knowing sneer to her music which is allowed to glow malevolently from the simplicity, the nakedness of her songs. What foolish girls who look up to the sky in search of love, wishing and waiting until they die. Even their dreams will betray them. The man in the sky isn’t married yet.

She is not immune through. In ‘Talking Like You (Two Tall Mountains)', she hears some lost love everywhere. Echoes of him everywhere (I can relate). That is when you know for sure that a break-up has bruised you, infected you to the very core. It doesn't matter what you do or where you go; reminders of him follow you around like your shadow. The whole world becomes a minefield of memories. Up that tree, there's sort of a squirrel thing. Sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling. Brilliant rhyming aside, this image is cute but so very sinister in the way you can be so tied down, so trapped by someone who is no longer there. But there is a edge of defiance as well. You might think you've left me all alone but I can hear you talk without a telephone. Connie know that she has been able to capture something as well. The memories are hers. He does not get to take away what he once gave so willingly. The bravado is ironic, of course but also, sincere. Its almost like she's saying 'Fuck you, I will always own a piece of you, it's mine'. She is endlessly pragmatic even through loss. And so stoic. She sounds like an emotionally repressed person forced to talk about their feelings in family therapy.

Connie Converse recorded these songs in the 50's. In 1974, she wrote letters of farewell to her loved ones and then left, never to be seen again. Too few are the days that will hold your face. She is still missing to this day. It is hard to separate this biographical information from the songs themselves. The whole album sounds like the thoughts of someone too used to everything disappearing, who herself is not immune to disappearing. All of this is only temporary. But so delicious anyway. How sad, how lovely. How short, how sweet.

© 2011 Emma Mould