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

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