Thursday, 2 July 2015

An apocalypse of penises: another Chuck Palahniuk idea

Full title: Beautiful You
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 224 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Doubleday(2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

As Chuck Palahniuk has already proven so many times, his narrations are nothing if not verging on the outrageous. Most of the time they hang onto some crazy idea which he works on until a world unlike anything we know comes out. And then everything seems normal, because it’s made to work like a world that we know. Case in point, Beautiful You. The subject matter: orgasm. Exactly what I was talking about.
The mad scientist type, one by the name of Cornelius Linus Maxwell (abbreviated, for mass media purposes, to Climax-Well), launches this whole line of personal care products designed to satisfy the world’s female population with the intention of changing forever the fabric of society. As the quote on the dust wrapper makes apparent, “A billion husbands are about to be replaced” by these wonderful inventions. And indeed, Beautiful You, the name of the new line of products, makes female orgasm possible without the input of men. The idea is met with more than enthusiasm (and not only by women). But not before we're given some solid information to chew on for thorough edification.
Crazy items bearing crazy names and performing crazy feats of electronic self-manipulation are tested on the protagonist, Penny Harrigan, a young (somewhere in the twenties) Midwesterner with dreams of making it big as a lawyer in New York. She meets Climax-Well, thinks she’s become her girlfriend but finds out quickly that she is in fact his test subject. There’s a mocking reference, of course, to Fifty Shades of Grey: same social gap between protagonists, same focus on aberrant sexuality, same media involvement, etc. etc. Once the reference is figured out, Palahniuk moves on to something more complex. He plays with biblical dimensions. He emulates the apocalyptic narratives that inundate literature and film nowadays. By having pleasured Penny to an extent never experienced by other women (with the exception of the President of the United State – yes, there’s a first US woman president on stage, which places the novel in a future setting – and the Queen of England – not the current one, of course, but a puppet manipulated by the billionaire, so another fictitious character – plus a film celebrity whose career stops in full bloom), by having pleasured Penny, then, Palahniuk makes sure we understand what Beautiful You is capable of. And once we got the point, he makes the crazy billionaire launch his products to hysterically enthusiastic crowds. Here's where the Zombie-like atmosphere comes to the front stage, to tick the box of futuristic, apocalyptic, mob-crazy explosion. The women of the world, grown so quickly fond of the self-fondling equipment given them by Climax-Well's company, reach a stage of universalized hysteria that takes them out of social and economic schemes of things and plunge them into self-obliterating, intense, continuous sexual arousal. Which makes the world a hell devoid of women. What takes place in New York (the setting of first choice) is akin to Zombie-ridden cityscapes. For example:
"Those thousands of desperate women surged forward and crashed against the pink-mirrored façade of the building, hammering at the glass with the clunky helps of their ugly shoes. They wielded their worn erotic tools as truncheons. They beat with their fists until ominous cracks raced in every direction and the windows and doors bowed inward, ready to collapse."
And so the Big Apple is taken by a storm of overly-excited yet insufficiently-pleased women, asking for more sex toys the way their Zombie counterparts would ask for more brain.
There’s social and cultural commentary to be had here, with a de-rigueur sarcasm that suits so well Palahniukean texts.
“Artificial overstimulation seemed like the perfect way to stifle a generation of young people who wanted more and more from a world where less and less was available. Whether the victims were men or women, arousal addiction seemed to have become the new normal.”
The novel also takes pleasure in imitating forensic and medical drama. The parallels are to be found in the narrative voice, which provides descriptions of anatomical parts with a care for details that would make the producers of House, Bones, or Body of Proof blush with embarrassment at their shallow knowledge of biology.

Chuck Palahniuk
Those who don’t want to accept such exercises in emulation will perhaps miss the play with similarities that Palahniuk appears to be offering his readership. There’s a scene, for instance, where book burning is referenced as well. Yet in the scene the flames don’t consume volumes; they devour artificial penises. All caught on camera (the 21st-century version of Inquisition’s all-seeing eye):
“The camera drew closer, and Penny witnessed what looked like any male’s vision of hell. Innumerable multitudes of severed penises were writhing in the conflagration. Phalluses squirmed in the intense heat, blistering and twisting as if in prolonged torment. Aflame, some suffering man-parts crept, inchworm-like, from the fire as if attempting to escape to safety. They flopped. Flipped. Jumped and twitched. As if in agony. These were caught by the surrounding men and summarily flung back to their doom. Still other dongs erupted in the heat, spouting pink molten lava.”
Palahniuk is quite vivid. We’ve got to give him that. It has to be said, though, that there are moments when it isn’t quite clear that what he's doing is pure mockery of popular genres or just a lack of will to finish this work well. To climax it well – if you get my pun (lol). There is the matter of motivation, for instance, that needs to be clarified. No spoilers are going to be provided, but the denouement isn’t as fabulous as one would expect – a rather common way of finishing a story, something not unlike certain Hollywood productions that handle endings in terms of unexpected discoveries and dues-ex-machina resolutions (old tricks in use since Greek comedies). There’s also the question: why the hell is a female mystic living in the Himalayas needed at all? Because one such appears, out of the blue, and even features in the end, where she dies dramatically, but not before having the chance to tell the story of everything from a perspective we haven't been aware of. I know it sounds familiar. Because it is. Mockery again? Point taken. But still: why? And why, also, the continuous postponing of the ending? The story misses (metaphorically speaking, if we take this to be intentional) three or four chances to finish, but every time more seems to be the case. This is not the classic multi-ending narrative but rather a story which refuses to end. Hold on. There’s something that just struck me, as I was writing the line above. Is this continuous ending meant to be something akin to a never-ending orgasm? Which is what happens to the women in the novel? Since Palahniuk likes to play with possibilities, it’s likely we’ll never get an answer to these questions. But what a thought! The never-ending orgasm and all that...
So let's leave it here.