By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday. 197 pp. $24.95
Chuck Palahniuk is the gross-out cartographer of the modern male id, a gutter-brained romanticist and a wildly popular, if queasy-making, authorial voice. Palahniuk's tremendous appeal (particularly among hard-to-reach younger adults) isn't hard to fathom. He specializes in pitch-perfect renderings of the Disaffected White Guy -- a Freudian roil of biological functions and body issues, longing, confusion, anger, vulnerability and a big dash of bourgeois honky ennui. Charges that Palahniuk is some transgresso-capitalist huckster ring false. As a shock auteur, your shelf life is limited. After a couple of books, readers know you're out to yank their crank, and soon you're just Marilyn Manson with a publishing contract, a Toontown ghoul prompting more yawns than shrieks. A fly on the wall of the clown college that is the cult of North American Masculinity, Palahniuk is a source of revelation with a stack of bestsellers behind him. If his sentences are occasionally rough-hewn and his endings a bit too fantastical, so be it. No other contemporary writer makes raging against the machine so compulsively readable.
Given the shock value of porn in our culture, it's no surprise that Palahniuk would seize it as a subject, though his latest novel, Snuff, explores skin flicks from an angle that's more tepid than titillating: the grim business of production. A snuff movie is a mythical pornographic creation in which a performer actually dies during the climactic sex act, but here, the title Snuff refers to the termination of a working life: A stereotypically bleached and flossy adult megastar named Cassie Wright wants to close out her legendary career by setting a world record: partnering with 600 men in a single picture. It's a one-day shoot, and the backstage lot of this Herculean project is the setting for the book, random guns-for-hire wandering around, ruminating on their motives and trying to psych themselves up for their close-up. Told from the alternating perspectives of performers number 600, 137 and 72 plus talent wrangler Sheila, Snuff is less about Cassie than the minor players in orbit around this fading star.
Mr. 600, himself a red-light veteran, knows the old saw: "The way to get a babe to act in a blue movie is you offer her a million dollars. The way to get a dude is you just have to ask him." Then, he thinks to himself, "That's not actually a joke. Not like a ha-ha joke." His compatriot, Mr. 137, is a bronzed and powdered autograph hound who (literalism alert!) carries an autographed stuffed hound, named Mr. Toto. Mr. 72 is a junior varsity Jesus freak who assigns maternal significance to his love for Cassie. Young Sheila is both taskmaster on the set and right-hand girl to Cassie, helping her with everything from make-up to bikini waxing. Her grisly retellings of the length to which various Hollywood stars have gone in pursuit of fame and longevity are among the book's highlights.
In the same way a person goes to the movies not just for the cinematic offering but also for the jumbo bag of Twizzlers, one reads Palahniuk not only for the story but also for the nonfiction nuggets he tosses in. Snuff includes facts about the intricacies of gang tattoos, the way morticians keep bugs out of a corpse's nose and how Annabel Chong, the real life star of "The World's Biggest Gang Bang" was influenced by Roman empress Valeria Messalina. He also has fun riffing on the porn tradition of bastardizing pop culture into skin flick titles, like Three Days of the Condom and Frisky Business.
Although Snuff is graphic enough to make even a cursory excerpt all but impossible in a family paper, the book is curiously prim and reverent about the female body -- no egregious slut-baiting, and the leading lady is still a super-star at 40-something. (Note: This does not happen in real life; you're punted into the "MILF porn" niche at about 30.) Even the Jesus freak kid, a prime candidate for a bit of Bible-bred misogyny, turns out to be a lost soul with a Madonna complex: "Right now, up those stairs, the lady behind the door, she's . . . a shrine where you pilgrimage a thousand miles on your knees to pay tribute. . . . Every man here might hate every other man, outside of here we might all kill each other, but we all love her."
The World's Largest Gang Bang is a perfect metaphor for the impersonal, endlessly gnashing porno maw that chews up adult performers like so many artificially sweetened snack items, even if it's not the grossest game in Porno Town. To the last page, Snuff is a moralistic work, but not in the way of tedious, partisan bickering about the dangers of porn. Snuff is, instead, a meditation on immortality, ambition, the lure of risk, the need for stability and, ultimately, on leaving a legacy. The question isn't why Palahniuk would take on such an off-putting subject, but rather, what took him so long. Chuck and porn. Porn and Chuck -- the two go together like fists and brass knuckles, moth and flame: a fatalistic coupling that happens to be, also, a perfect match.
-- Lily Burana is the author of "Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America" and the forthcoming "I Love a Man in Uniform."