By Jeff VanderMeer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday. 241 pp. $24.95
Sloppy yet smart, Chuck Palahniuk's "Pygmy" veers from sublimely ridiculous to just plain ridiculous, sometimes within a single paragraph.
An infiltrating agent from a nameless authoritarian country, Pygmy poses as a high school exchange student and joins the Midwestern family of Donald Cedar. "Host father," as Pygmy calls him, works for the Radiological Institute of Medicine and has access to biotoxins. Pygmy and his fellow undersize operatives hope to unleash a biochemical Operation Havoc on an unsuspecting United States.
Much of the novel's demented comedy derives from Pygmy's clipped syntax, as when he asks an aging Wal-Mart greeter: "Revered soon dying mother, distribute you ammunitions correct for Croatia-made forty-five-caliber, long-piston-stroke APS assault rifle?" It's a very funny line, but I can't figure out what it has to do with running a covert biochemical operation. Brutal flashbacks to Pygmy's rigid indoctrination also sit uneasily next to sections of broad farce that, one could argue, consist mainly of extended vibrator-based monologues. Even worse, just about every adult in the novel acts like an idiot to advance the plot, from the boob of a host father to the priest who (quelle surprise!) sleeps with underage girls. Throughout, Palahniuk displays such a lust for profane jokes that he's willing to sacrifice logic for them.
That's a shame, because Palahniuk is brilliant at juxtaposing Pygmy's insane background with the madness of contemporary Western society. From school dances to gym dodge ball, the novel mercilessly, sometimes with rote, joyless precision, takes the reader through the gamut of high school life while Pygmy works on activating Operation Havoc. Pleasures along the way include a model U.N. summit staged by the students that features some of the author's finest satire, with observations like this: "Operative Chernok as delegate Italy sucking the earlobe of lady delegate Venezuela" and an unforgettable pledge by Pygmy to "make available own cherished American children, ship overseas as lifelong chattel slaves, gesture shown of goodwill." Still, it's another great scene sacrificed to the novelist's lack of discipline. A climax at the national science fair seems right out of a made-for-TV movie and rushes to a sentimental ending Pygmy doesn't truly deserve; this is, after all, an agent who brutally raped a boy who bullied him.
Maybe Palahniuk isn't capable of doing more with Pygmy's great voice than using it to strike a series of grotesquely comic poses, or maybe I'm just partially immune to the pleasures of a novel that features a thousand slang terms for "breasts." Either way, "Pygmy" could've done with fewer vibrator jokes and more ripping out of jugulars.
VanderMeer's novel "Finch" and nonfiction "Booklife" will be published this fall.