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Book review: <i>Snuff</i> by Chuck Palaniuk

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the cover of the book

If this was any less erotic, grandparents would be involved. (The fact that the author failed to include any was most likely an accident.)


A flesh-coloured wrap around, with the title dark purple against black, inside the pink loop of some embossed cartoon lips. In the centre of it all, a tiny female silhouette, foiled in gold. The text is either fat seventies serifs, or chunky seventies-style caps with the indents formed by little karma sutran outlines. The inside covers are a silhouette pattern of such figures, and even the paper of the book is a fleshy off-white, printed with brown text. The whole lot was skilfully conceived and executed, managing to be sexily modern yet happily reminiscent of the seventies, golden era of porn and boldly simplistic cover design.


Cassie Wright, porn queen extraordinaire, is planning to break the bonin’ world record first set by Annabel Chong at 251 guys in a row, since broken several times, with the ultimate - 600 sex acts in a row. So, on the day of filming, she’s upstairs under the hot lights, and downstairs are six hundred men, a number felt-penned on their bicep, marshalled into groups by Ms. Wright’s misanthropic PA, and sent upstairs for their three minutes of fame. It’s a long day. Amongst the crowd is a nineteen year old boy, who believes himself to the rumoured biological son Cassie put up for adoption. There’s also an aging porn star, lunging at the limelight by being Mr. 600, and a possibly unhinged gay superfan. As the crowd slowly thins, these three characters get to know each other, and as their stories begin to open up, so do some old wounds…

The good

Good LORD. Truly there is no writer being published today who could bring to life the full horror of a room full of sweating, stinking men standing around naked eating home-brand corn chips and waiting irritably for the chance to bone some skank. Chuck creates tangible sensations in the reader like nobody else, and this ability is put to use in Snuff with an effect that borders on the primal. You really can’t read this while you’re eating, which represents an achievement, I suppose, given that, the main plot conceit aside, this is actually one of Chuck’s more restrained books – a nice change after Haunted, in fact.

It’s kind of odd, when you think about it, that it took Palahniuk this long to write a book focussed on sex. Invisible Monsters, probably his most feminine work, was more about gender and reinvention than sex, and Fight Club, probably his most macho, is far more concerned with male relationships than any involving women. Snuff aims to encompass the whole sex package in one (short) book – there are themes concerning the effects of pornography on the users and performers, the divorce between idealistic sexual imagery and reality, the stunted nature of sexual obsession, correlations between mothers and the sexuality of their children, and the way Western society’s reluctance to look directly at the most atavistic instinct serves to pervert the act in the minds of the masses, much the same way that hiding from real relationships in the refuge of porn distorts and ultimately destroys the simple beauty of the act at its heart. Palahniuk’s style involves creating a thematic density, whereby questions of subtlety are crushed into nothingness by the gravitational force of the writing. If that sounds heavy-handed then you haven’t read him, frankly. But that’s not to say he always succeeds.

It's an intriguing set-up, however you look at it. Palahniuk writes it short and fast, too - the whole book's about 200 pages, with big margins and short chapters, frequently only two or three pages long. But a lot happens in that space, it must be said, and one certainly doesn't feel cheated - remember, Fight Club was a short book, too.

The bad

On the other hand, this is a long way short of Fight Club, in terms of what's fitted into the story. Oddly enough, also, Snuff employs one of Chuck's set-ups, like Lullaby, which actually could have run longer than it did. In my lazy opinion, at least, it seems odd to me that Chuck started with Fight Club and Survivor, two perfectly paced books whose structure and length were actually bound into the fabric of the plot (Fight Club begins at the end, leaping backward through time as the narrator struggles to locate the story's real beginning, and Survivor's chapters count backwards while the narrator recounts his story inside a 747 plummeting to Earth - if that sounds fucking awesome that's because IT IS and you should READ IT), but a lot of his later work - Diary, Choke, Haunted - feels overlong and discursive. I suspect that Snuff is an attempt to return to the tightness of his early work - it's a solid little package, which sets up its grisly goal from the monosyllabic title onwards, drops us into a claustrophobic room with a bunch of sweaty naked men, and leaves the reader barely enough time to wonder what Chuck can surprise us with before somebody dies.

He has a few tricks up his sleeve, I'll grant him that, and the finale is either a triumph of his patented brick-through-the-window symbolism or a heavy-handed cop-out - I'll leave that up to you - but it's certainly surprising. The biggest problem with Snuff, I think, is that, as a reader, I'm growing accustomed to the extremities of Chuck's style, which means that, instead of the visceral impacts so often intended by the author, I tend to feel mildly revolted and not much else. Likewise, as noted, the plot, which should writhe like an electric eel in a too-small tank, instead feels, and I hate to say it because I love so much of Palahniuk's work, like a slightly desperate attempt to grab our attention by any means possible. In his love of the everyday gothic, Palahniuk has something in common with British comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen (who created an entire modern village which seems, horrifically, to be populated by no more than three genetic strands, which is, more often than not, fatal to outside visitors) - both suffer, though, from the diminishing returns of grotesquery, whereby, eventually, the audience must ask themselves why they're actually bothering, once the thrill of the awful is replaced by the sort of low-level queasiness one would feel, for example, at being forced to spend six hours in a room full of sweaty, half-naked wankers. This dis-ease is compounded, in both cases, by the audience knowing that the artists in question are capable of great things, independent to their fondness for the gut-punch. Snuff is a far more restrained book than, say, Haunted, which is a good thing. It even has a happy ending, of sorts. What frustrates me is that it's built on the same old foundations as Palahniuk's past work, and I'd like to see him evolving. The amazing collection Non-Fiction shows the subtlety, emotional range and observed human detail Palahniuk is capable of when he's not bothering to try and make his audience sick. I'm not saying he should lose his edge, but I'm saying it would cut much better if he put it away occasionally and used other tools instead. Frankly it's getting blunt, and needs to be sharpened with something other than the creaky belt of excess.

What I learnt

Some stuff about pornos, now forgotten. Leave it to Chuck to write the least erotic book about shooting porn since David Foster Wallace's piece in Consider The Lobster. There is one tiny, incandescent sentence, almost an aside, where the obnoxious, past-it porn star describes losing his virginity, " though our bodies were having a conversation." It shines so brightly because, without exception, the rest of the sex in the book is scarring, grotesque, abusive, ridiculous, or a combination thereof.

I recently learned two new things about Chuck Palahniuk - firstly, his father was murdered (which I was aware of) before Chuck wrote Lullaby (which I was not), probably his lightest, funniest, most-ought-to-be-turned-into-a-film-instead-of-Choke-why-on-Earth-did-they-pick-Choke-for-heaven's-sake novel. Secondly, Chuck is gay. What these facts contribute to the writing and/or reading of Snuff, which is about sex, parentage, and self-identity as much as any of Chuck's books before it, I will leave to you.

In short

Title: Snuff
Author: Chuck Palaniuk
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 1400107334
Year published: 2008
Pages: 208
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Humour
Review Type: