Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.

arts Home > Book Reviews




Author:Chuck Palahniuk
Release Date:2009

Chuck Palahniuk appears at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's central branch May 7.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/29/2009

Expectedly both intoxicatingly over-the-top and unthreatening to the status quo, Chuck Palahniuk's latest novel pushes that evergreen hot-topic button--racism--with an almost childish glee. That he frames this story as a highly orchestrated terrorist attack on the United States is practically a taunt. Throw in some teenager-on-teenager gun violence, rampant religious mockery, and more politically incorrect racial stereotypes than there are orgasms in Klaus Kinski's autobiography and you have a novel that practically begs for a hysterical knee-jerk response.

In other words, Pygmy is a pretty typical Palahniuk novel. His outsider first-person narrator this time isn't one of his familiarly flawed non-heroes, but a diminutive Asian exchange student who has come to live with a host family in some unnamed middle American suburb. He's dubbed Pygmy because of his small stature, and his story is told as a series of first-person dispatches about his adventures in the capitalistic evil that is the United States. Pygmy is one of a number of young terrorists from an unnamed Asian dictatorship visiting a generic American city under the guise of a humanitarian mission. All these young students, though, are highly trained operatives sent to carry out Operation Havoc, a terrorist mission designed to infect the general populace. And Pygmy writes in broken, grammatically awkward verbal style that would be an act of blatant Engrish mocking if Palahniuk didn't take more scabrous aim at the United States.

The result is just as readable as Palahniuk's workmanlike blunt prose, only the clumsy affectations introduce new opportunities for opportunistic jokes and entertainingly cruel satire. Pygmy occasionally breaks off from his Operation Havoc status reports to narrate his and his fellow operatives' back stories, which sound like they were taken from their parents and sent to the sort of militaristic indoctrination camp that Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey endured in The Manchurian Candidate. There, they all learn a soldier's knowledge of modern weaponry and an assassins' quiver of hand-to-hand combat strategies. They're pinted-size ticking time bombs.

Pygmy, though, speaks as though he learned syntax from Koko the signing gorilla, coating his every thought and action in a patina of the absurd: "Electric-bolt eyes of bully bleeding water. Blue star of fighting anus leak blood into thin stripes down white legs. Everywhere patriotic. Here so great American nation."

This scene--an underage anal rape in a Wal-Mart men's room--happens within the first 20 pages, and Palahniuk takes aim at other soft targets throughout the book. Of course, Pygmy earns laughs not because he's shooting at glossy-eyed fish in a barrel, but because he's doing it at close range with a sawed-off, over-and-under 10-gauge. By the end, though, Pygmy practically embraces the parasitical mass American culture that it spends its entire length disemboweling--leaving it a pretty hilarious cover-to-cover read, but feeling as experimental and culturally volatile as Beck.

E-mail Bret McCabe

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter