With North Korea rising once again in the public consciousness as a reminder of what a despicable totalitarian regime looks like there’s never been a more appropriate time to deliver a literary jab in a distinctly American medium: the razor sharp satire.
That’s what Americans do when confronting totalitarianism: single it out for ridicule. Charlie Chaplin targeted Nazism with “The Great Dictator” in 1940. Modern times have seen a cruder attack on today’s Nazis in the efforts of Trey Parker and Matt Stone who made clowns out of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in their “South Park” TV show and Kim Jong Il in “Team America World Police.”
Chuck Palahniuk is to the novel what Parker and Stone are to the animated cartoon: a delightfully offensive satirist eager to induce chuckles and squirms in equal measure. His newest novel, Pygmy, is a return to the form of his most successful, earlier works.
The book begins with a quote from the Great Dictator himself: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” – Adolf Hitler. We’re then introduced to a character that would have found himself at home among the Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany, Agent Number 67, whom we’ll know in his writings as “operative me” but who those around him will come to embrace as “Pygmy,” a nickname given to him by his host family.
Palahniuk is known for his mentally-unbalanced, yet strangely determined protagonists. Pygmy fits in just fine with Tyler Durden of Fight Club, Tender Branson of Survivor, and Brandy Alexander of Invisible Monsters. At first glance he’s a 13-year-old foreign exchange student from an unnamed, Asian, communist country. Since we read his “accounts” we know the truth, though: Pygmy is a highly-trained, thoroughly-indoctrinated, America-hating operative who is part of a team planning a unique terrorist plot known as “Operation Havoc.”
In preparation for the unknown attack Pygmy resides with the Cedar Family. We don’t learn their real names, only the nicknames Pygmy assigns them – Cow Father, Chicken Mother, Pig Dog Brother, and Cat Sister. He’s embedded amongst them and we get to see America through his eyes as they take him to Wal-Mart, church, and school. All the while he’s secretly loathing them, describing how he could kill them in with precise martial arts moves. These violent fantasies are interwoven with his teenage desires. Throughout the novel Pygmy lusts after Cat Sister and his classmates, declaring them to be “appropriate vessel” for “seed of this agent.” Like “South Park,” Palahniuk’s satirical targets are across the political spectrum. Consumerism, communism, and Christianity get jabs but so does teen promiscuity.
Sprinkled throughout are chapters of Pygmy reflecting on his brutal indoctrination. He sums up the purpose of it, the creed of all totalitarian ideologies; “Required to erase own self. Otherwise state will do so.”
Pygmy begins to feel some cognitive dissonance, though, once he’s embraced by the community and his lusts toward Cat Sister shift toward genuine affection. These are the American monsters he’s been taught to hate? But they’re so much friendly than the “esteemed instructors” he’s known his short life.
Palahniuk doesn’t really do much depth. He’s always been all style and meager substance. That’s tolerable, though, given how entertaining the style is. Like his best books Pygmy is filled with plenty of absurd, laugh-out-loud moments. Some of the best come when Pygmy join’s the school’s model United Nations club and gets to represent the United States.
Palahniuk fails to create deep characters and his writing style is marked by a minimalist approach – short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, and a kind of literary repetition. In Pygmy these tendencies devolve to the extreme in the form of Pygmy’s broken English prose – an entertaining device but ultimately something that often makes for a less accessible narrative.
Palahniuk’s chapters usually develop a ritualistic template. In Pygmy they each begin with Pygmy identifying himself and the number of the entry as well as listing the location – the latter of which is always blacked out. Almost every chapter also includes Pygmy quoting a famous fascist or communist leader approvingly. He’ll assign them some amusing descriptor – Leon Trotsky is “profound genius, generous mentor” and Mao Tse-Tung is “jolly monarch, good-natured king.” The particular quote will then repeat before the chapter ends.
Now why would someone want to spend 256 pages with such a character? This is an indoctrinated little thug who continually dumps on American culture with every breath.
Well, Palahniuk is known for his twist endings. Almost all of his books have endings ala Fight Club – a wild swing that comes out of the blue but ultimately ends up making perfect sense.
Palahniuk hints at that ending when he answered a question in an interview with Time Magazine about whether the book is a political novel:
To me this is less of a political novel than a coming-of-age novel. Do you remember when you were 10 or 11 years old and you really thought your folks were the best? They were completely omniscient and you took their word for everything. And then you got older and you went through this hideous age when suddenly they were the devil, they were bullies, and they didn't know anything. Pygmy's host family treats America as this place where everything is perfect. But Pygmy is trained to treat America as that bully, the oppressor, the evil idiot. Eventually beyond both of those stages you break into accepting your parents as human beings who are not perfect but who love you and are really doing the very best they can. Pygmy breaks through to recognizing these evil bullies as being loving people who don't know everything.
Could it be that the author of the anarchist, anti-corporate anthem Fight Club is moving to the Right as he grows older? Now that is a twist ending that I could never have imagined.