Friday, 31 July 2015

Violent zoology: Walton Ford’s watercolours

Full title: Pancha Tantra
Author: Walton Ford. Edited by Bill Buford
Genre: Art
Attributes: 304 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Taschen (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Walton Ford’s watercolors aren't meant to be viewed. They're meant to be read. There's a pregnant narrative quality to every single one of these tableaux vivants, where animals partake in a silent show full of arrested action. They are fables and not quite fables. They have the diction of animal tales meant to be read as allegories (as something other than they are). But this fableness of theirs has a problem when it comes to moralitas. You don’t get the this-is-what-happens-if-you-do-that kind of lesson from these watercolours. The message is much more invested than this early-childhood, easy-morality tone.

Taking their inspiration from books researched by Ford (see quotes written across painted surfaces, scientific denominations, various references, research notes), these paintings do the intelligent work usually ascribed to quotations. They are not illustrations, but rather references. They point at events as well as their unexplored possibilities.

But let’s talk about the subject matter. Animals, yes, but what animals?

Trapped animals.

Indeed, a lot of Ford’s creatures are caught in all manner of setups: snares just about to close around their necks, hooves on the point of being severed, the mouth of a snake swallowing a whole flock of birds like a cage about to close forever. This idea of imprisonment leading to death is everywhere: a domestication-in-the-making, the approaching of the hour of becoming-food, deaths by riffles or by fangs. These, as well as their multiple variants. There’s a cow being killed by a jaguar, monkeys eaten by crocodiles, birds swallowing fish larger than their own bodies, a parrot strangled by a macaque, a secretary eating a cobra while at the same time many other cobras are trying to eat her. An entire zoology of violence takes place in Ford’s works. There are killings every step of the way, there are things animals do to other animals, things that are aimed at annihilation.

But there are also the violent acts enabled by civilization, and these are of much more import. One example: Pantherausbruch, a haunting description of a hunt for a panther escaped from a Swiss zoo, with the animal in the foreground, a close-up on its panic, winter fog laced around its mouth; all against the background of an Alpine village, humans carrying torches, their noises lost in the distance but approaching ever so slowly, the killing machine closing on the animal step by step.

Even more striking (already observable in Panterausbruch) is the placement of animals within human environments. Just as the original texts quoted by Ford were records of first-hand witnesses, Ford’s canvases too are interested in putting the animal between quotation marks (symbols of the alphabet, traces of signification, distributions of human power against natural order).

In Le Jardin, a rather faithful rendition of George Catlin’s 19th-century painting Buffalo Hunt (minus the bull’s posture: disarticulated, near-expired, in Catlin’s version; only tired, still capable of glory, in Ford’s), the animals are placed in a colonial garden. The only spectator to the carnage, a crow perched on top of a stone vase. Given the background, the composition takes on an interesting conceptual quality. It’s within the human frame that the incident unfolding in the centre converts into calamity. As made apparent by a quote from Catlin’s own notes, the event becomes a tragedy only when regarded by the human observer, who forces the establishment of an improbable relationship only for the sake of a story told in anthropocentric terms:

“I rode nearer to the pitiful object as he stood bleeding and trembling before me, and said to him, ‘Now is your time, old fellow, and you better be off.’ Though blind and nearly destroyed, there seemed to be evidently a recognition of a friend in me, as [the buffalo] straightened up, and, trembling with excitement, dashed off at full speed upon the prairie, in a straight line.”

In Ford’s version, the human gaze is replaced by human signs. The garden, with its pointed hedge structures and its vastness bounded by stone fences, does not need the gaze; the human is there in every object. The human, symbolized, with great irony, by the watching crow.

One needs to check the details of these paintings, because a lot of the story lies in these particulars.

Take the example of La Fontaine: a life-and-death battle between a lion and an alligator. Once again, the scene is placed in a distinct human environment. Another garden, another arena. But it’s not only the fountain that makes the human presence apparent. Scattered all over the foreground there are flowers, squashed or simply fallen to the ground; flowers that appear to have been part of a lost bouquet. In other words, flowers picked by a human hand (violence done to vegetation for a presumed aesthetic purpose). And to make things more explicit, there lies, in the lower left corner, a fan. Likely to have been dropped to the ground when the terrible affair between the two animals came centre-stage. Humans vacating a scene of animal violence, but a kind of violence that takes place precisely within the precincts of a human structure. See the stone fence visible in the background, and like a joke, like a terrible irony, a passageway left open – the promise of an escape that won’t take place. This is a case of perverse return upon origins, a circular tale that confuses stages in order to highlight the crux.

But that’s not all. It’s not just any human that’s left traces in the landscape. The fan is a woman’s object. One meant to suggest fragility. The fragility of the female race, their animal-like condition: tamed by the male, reduced to aesthetic fatality, chased out of the social sphere. What was the woman doing here? Here, in this arena where the animals fight their ultimate battle? Must there be a connection? There must. There is. Two tragedies of the same imprisonment, two types of escape.

These are the references made by Walton Ford’s watercolours. He doesn’t stop at the fable stage. His works are not field notes either. No. His paintings are references to the human that once decided to bring the animals into their circle of violence. Panchatantra in the twenty-first century.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Thomas Bernhard, the reluctant prize-winner

Full title: My Prizes. An Accounting
Author: Thomas Bernhard; translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Genre: Non fiction
Attributes: 130 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Thomas Bernhard was the controversial writer par excellence. Reading him is like finding out that nothing’s worth anything, that death takes all, that life, and especially life in the shadow of the state and its institutions, is an evil that must be rejected, even when it’s singing your praises in the choirs of public glory. The self-explanatory title of this collection of narratives (memoirs would perhaps be a better word to describe them) says it all: the volume takes to task literary prizes in nine stories about awards offered Thomas Bernhard during his life. To be more precise, nine stories about prizes and the scorn with which the recipient took them.
What must be said, if only as a parenthesis, is that the moments illustrated in these brief texts are moments of the last century. The solemnity Bernhard describes in them (and takes good care to ridicule) needs to be regarded with that chronological distance in mind. And it must also be regarded with the mind on the Austro-Hungarian festiveness and its must-do conventions: brass bands, public speeches, bratwursts, pints of cold beer, this and that. Of course, not all of the above is described as such in the volume, but some elements are pretty strongly implied, and to good humorous effect. What we witness with every such event are gatherings designed to consolidate that special kind of place known as Mitteleuropa, which celebrated writers for their compliance with the rules of Central-European provincialism.
Which is precisely what Bernhard despised the most.
But despising the spirit while at the same time accepting its prizes is likely to put one in a delicate situation. Hypocrisy springs to mind. It certainly did cross the minds of Bernhard’s contemporaries, especially the ones who missed no opportunity to cast their criticizing nets into his nonconformist oeuvre.
But Bernhard didn’t deny the allegations. On the contrary, he made them himself. Throughout these pieces Bernhard not only reminisced about events, he also remembered the strange state of acceptance-rejection that accompanied the news of yet another award, of yet another festive requirement:
“I had a constant empty feeling in my stomach whenever there was a question of accepting a prize, and my mind balked every time. But I remained too weak in all the years that prizes came my way to say no. There, I always thought, is a major hole in my character. I despised the people who were giving the prizes but I didn’t strictly refuse the prizes themselves. It was all offensive, but I found myself the most offensive of all. I hated ceremonies but I took part in them, I hated the prize-givers but I took their money.”
This passage pretty much synthesizes the entire volume. The short texts give off this constant feeling of uneasiness, even when the voice that narrates lists the advantages that came with the prizes generously offered by the Austrian State: money, fame, and the usual incentives.
So why take those prizes? Why refuse them? There’s a schizoid situation, right there: a demand to choose between two extremes. Bernhard, though, knew better than getting lost in some conceptual Manichaeism. He took the all-or-nothing approach and chose the easiest shortcut, so as to avoid idealizing his scorn. Take the money and run was his philosophy, albeit not literally so.
What’s also interesting to note is how Bernhard refused almost programmatically to write himself up as a writer; a choice likely to contain the answer to all the questions regarding his dualistic approach to prize-giving. The narrative voice of his mini-memoirs is not the voice of a writer.
Exclamation mark!
With very few exceptions (two or three if I remember correctly), the person who speaks is not caught up in writer-like activities. He never writes. He never reads. He talks to his editor once only. He doesn’t give speeches outside the prize-giving ceremonies. He doesn’t participate in public readings. What he does is in itself provincial and lame: he spends time with his aunt (the person who appears in every single one of the texts), he purchases, drives, and wrecks a car, he buys a derelict farmhouse and forgets about it, he hires a suit for one of the ceremonies and spends most of the time reflecting on the suit and almost no time on the literary qualities that had brought him the prize in the first place.
These are the actions that define the narrator of these texts. He’s not concerned with any of the life-and-death situations of Bernhard’s literary texts. And this is where the irony of the volume lies. A person who doesn’t act as a writer is given the honors associated with the profession. He takes them like a simple citizen, almost always surprised by the decision, almost always disgusted by the award-giving committees.
It’s significant to note that the only award he did accept with a degree of pride was the Literary Prize of the Federal Chamber of Commerce. The reason he felt good about this one in particular?
“From the beginning I associated this prize not with my activities as a writer but with my activities as an apprentice salesman [the profession Bernhard had before his writing career] and during the ceremony, which had no connection whatever to the city of Salzburg […] the only thing spoken of by the gentlemen of the Federal Chamber of Commerce who had given me the prize was Bernhard the apprentice salesman and never Bernard the writer.”
So yes, Thomas Bernhard did feel the urge to class himself outside of the literary elite. Which explains the contempt in his tone. But one must not understand him as a total misanthrope. It’s not the literary world as a whole that he despised. He speaks highly of minor but honest Austrian and German writers, and brings up the issue of the eccentric viewpoints that attracted public scorn against him and Peter Handke. It’s precisely because he identified himself as part of a group of intellectuals who did literature for the sake of it rather than for the sake of regional recognition, that Bernhard found pleasure in denying his affiliation to the trade of writers:
“I felt tremendously well among the worthy gentlemen of the merchant class and the whole time I spent with these gentlemen I had the impression I didn’t belong to literature, I belonged to the merchants.”
The message is clear. It stands out as an exercise in disparagement. Thomas Bernhard, a man who worked by Mitteleuropäische Zeit, a time of his own: not chronology but simple passing of time; not history but honest routines.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Yuri Herrera from narcosphere to immigrations

Full title: Signs Preceding the End of the World
Author: Yuri Herrera
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 128 pages, hard cover
Publisher: And Other Stories (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

I watched this documentary the other night, called Narco Cultura. It's about this Mexican popular epidemic of cultural products grown around drug cartels and the lives of drug traffickers south of the American border. This taste for outlaws and their adventures has birthed a literary offspring of its own. It's called Narcoliteratura or, even better to an English-tuned ear that’s familiar to the notion of the Latin American Boom, Tragic Realism. It deals with the same topics as the larger Narco Cultura phenomenon: violence, criminal acts, small-town glories based on fear and territorial claims, all forming what might be called a narcosphere, where everything revolves around the handling and using of drugs, plus the implications of such undertakings.
Yuri Herrera's novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World, takes the genre and goes with it to a certain extent. The novel starts in a poor Mexican village where everything seems to be regulated by small cliques debating their turf. In the village there's this young woman, Makina, who has a problem to solve: she needs to cross the border to find her brother. It soon becomes apparent that the operation is easier said than done. She wouldn't stand the slimmest chance of succeeding by herself, so she has to go the 'natural' way, i.e. the way of the criminal factions that run the businesses of her home place. They're up for the task, since they have a whole network in place: men to facilitate the crossing, men to provide accommodation, men to protect her and men to introduce her to other men, who can also introduce her to other men, who can etc. etc.
The network works perfectly but there's one grand obstacle: the lure of the place Makina is going to. Her brother, as it turns out, has settled north of the border. We don’t know exactly where, because none of the places in the novel is called anything recognizable. The search for a brother who doesn’t want to return gives the young woman a bigger problem to deal with and a bunch of thoughts to mess up her mind.
To Yuri Herrera, this novella offers the opportunity to do many things. For instance, to practice the dynamics of a typical narrative scheme: protagonist, antagonist, dispatcher, helpers, destination, denouement. All these plus many other elements of Proppian morphology are identifiable at a mere glance. Textbook Formalism, to put it otherwise. Herrera hasn't made it a hard task for his readers to find these elements and enjoy their familiar feel.

Yuri Herrera. Source: Malinche
Then, at a conceptual level, he's got the chance to explore North-American mestizaje, and especially its tex-mex variety. He does so in a poetic manner that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa. Like her, Herrera contracted a passionate leading character who's given this unique opportunity to put her in-betweenness to the test. There's a scene (recognizable, I'm sure, to people in the US-Mexico border area) in which a frustrated cop, the usual patriot-cum-chauvinist who uses authority to express his scorn for 'illegal aliens.' The scene is powerful. It forms what's likely to have been intended as the climax of the novel. The cop has forced a group of Mexicans to kneel in front of him and he mocks one of them who was carrying a volume of poetry. The cop rips a page out of the book and demands that the would-be poet write down something in English. The man is lost for words, humiliated, embarrassed, mortified. And here's where Makina, who speaks well the "Anglo tongue," intervenes and recites a chant of the humiliated immigrant.
“We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take our jobs, who dream of wiping our shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.”
The words of the barbarian put the cop to silence. A battle is won. A symbolic one, of course, but one all the more important as it is on foreign territory.
Then there's another passage where Herrera gets even more Anzalduesque, exploring the picture of the border people, the Chicanos, speakers of two tongues, makers of two cultures, people of complexity and simplicity all in one bundle. It's the protagonist speaking again:
“More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongues is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. But not a hecatomb. Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one. In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugate latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.”
All this is said and done against the background of narcoliteratura's own turf. The criminal life of the Mexican as well as American undergrounds loom over all these episodes with the weight of a cloud about to burst and crash everything underneath. But nothing bad really ever happens. The text is peppered with traffickers and pushers and all manner of mischief-makers, but the essence isn't there. Crime is not the major purpose. The novella deals with criminality as a liminal space: a sort of in-between that allows passage of people and destinies, highlighting only as much as it's needed to understand the passage of other things: of cultures and cultural allegiances, of politics and political dirty works; but most importantly, of stories and storytelling.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Sydney Padua and the computer that almost existed

Full title: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer
Author: Sydney Padua
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: 320 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Pantheon (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The book’s a jaunt through Victorian pretty-much-everything. To be more specific (…ish…): 1. Fashion (a lot of it, to keep the reader well immersed in the ‘spirit of the era’; btw, you’ve got to see the drawings to understand); 2. Technology (the book’s concerned primarily with this, since it’s set out to contemplate a possible alternative reality centered on a technological near-miss: the invention of the computer); 3. Historical facts (tons of them, every page explaining details about the era through copious references to primary sources, citations, encyclopedic blowing up of minute biographical details, etc. etc. etc.); 4. Mores and thereabouts (from literary salons to scientific soirées, a lot is being covered and presented with gusto).
Of course, as they say in Germany, Victorian times call for Victorian measures. Meaning: being so steeped in these times of ours when we take delight in all manner of reenactments, we might as well take pleasure in contemplating some Steampunk vogue (itself a conglomerate of fashion, mores, and all things Victorian). Which makes the Babbage case (see below for clarifications), with the addition of characters such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his crazy plans for the employment of the steam engine, pretty spot-on, since they’re prime material for the exploration of all of the above.
So Charles Babbage. A man who went down in history as the first who had an inkling of what a computer (called by him a “difference engine,” for a better-made philosophical case) might have looked like. Also, on the less fortunate side of his destiny, as one who proposed measures for the replacement of human workers by automated operations and/or machines. It’s said in the book:
“As I outlined in Machinery and Manufactures (6s. bound in cloth), true savings in labor costs arise from de-skilling complex tasks, so they may be done by any easily replaceable ignorant menial!”
In which by the menial is meant (symbolically first, actually later) an apparatus devoid of soul; in other words, a machine.
Good material for the Luddites to exercise their counter-arguments in their revolts. There are pages in the book that capture the protests of the masses, and they must be taken into consideration as well. At least for historical color.
Ada Lovelace, the other name in the title, has a story of her own too. Daughter of Byron (yes, the Byron), she was trained in sciences rather than the poetic reverberations of her father, who seems to have advised her strongly against his own profession. Or that’s what some letter fragments say. So she became a quite astute mathematician, met Babbage, worked with him for a while (some saying she was behind his calculations, as a do-all high priestess of the Difference Engine), but then their relationship broke, Lovelace died at the age of 36 (the same as her father’s! damn destiny!), while Babbage lived on to die a poor, bitter man, with none of his dreams fulfilled.

Sydney Padua. Source: Forbidden Planet
These are the facts. But Sydney Padua builds a parallel story. Of course, her art permits such escapades. And so we see Lovelace and Babbage succeeding in building that proto-computer that never got built in reality. And once they see it working they put it to use. More precisely, they sort out a financial crisis, get to work on manuscript corrections, go nuts about mathematical possibilities, and more, and more. As it’s easy to see, a lot of fictional stuff. Yet isn’t fiction, as they say in Magna Germania, the meat and bone of progress?
But to get back to Lovelace. Padua suggests she was powerless against the Byronic legacy (and she may not be the only one to suggest so); powerless in the sense of unable to avoid the fictional aspect of mathematics, the storytelling inherent in numbers, the narrative lure of formulae and theorems. Ada soliloquizes at some point:
“Nonsense! The most advanced mathematicians accept unquantified symbols in their realm! In any event, I am a historical figure, and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Humanities!”
We appreciate the joke, but that’s exactly the point, madam la comtesse. Being made into a comic character, you’ve been moved away from the fact factory of overly-exact historicism and dropped into the melting pot of fiction.
Sydney Padua, it has to be said, does a very good job at balancing the two.
The book as a whole is a series of complexities. On the one hand, it reads like a straight-up comic book: panels following panels, the narrative organized in a mostly linear way (in the serialized fashion to boot), the drawings telling the story when the words aren’t that capable.
But wait, there’s more. Almost every page has footnotes, containing mostly true facts. In addition, these footnotes have their own notes, at the end of each chapter/installment, which bring about more information, more story, more insight. And just to complete the picture, the book ends with a thick section (almost sixty pages) containing two appendices: one made up of cutouts from primary documents (mostly mid-19th century newspaper articles and “trivial yet amusing snippets”) and the other one offering a comic’s explanation (with illustrations, of course) of the Difference Engine, its operations, its logics, its many-many cogs and wheels. The first representation, it seems, in a long, long, long, long, long time.
But wait, there’s even more.

A page from the book, outlining the early-childhood destiny of Ada Lovelace.
There are special appearances by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Jane Austen, and other Victorian celebrities I’m likely to have forgotten, depicted in their attire and typical gestures; and also some more cameos by Karl Marx and a bunch of Russian-looking revolutionaries (not sure if I spotted Lenin there or if it was just an illusion), who witness the crushing of ideology under the weight of progress. Chronological mismatches don’t matter, of course, because this is a multiverse, where time and space often coincide in the best ways possible, so as to generate an outcome equal to the input of fair judgment plus conceptual match-making.
There’s a meeting between Ada Lovelace and George Eliot I am tempted to draw attention to (and I will), when something I’d like to call “poetics of data” is brought up. The way Lovelace explains to a desperate Eliot that the words she’d thought destroyed by the machine are safe and well confers upon the topic an elegant lure, if tinged here and there with well-intended pretentiousnesses (yes, my plural is well intended too, if slightly odd):
“Despair not! Your words are not destroyed! On the contrary, they are shedding their earthly form! They have become transcendent! They have become… Data! Liberated from the static shell of the material, transliterated to the purely symbological, sublimated into a state entirely new! It can be filed, indexed, converted, replicated, searched, shared, shuffled, linked, remixed, recombined, archived, analyticated… resurrected!”
And to complete the picture in the same avant-la-lettre fashion, here’s what might sound even more familiar to a contemporary (i.e. of 21st-century descent) reader:
“Imagine… with the eventual integration of Wheatstone’s telegraph, the difference engine will convey, transcribe, analyze, and store forever the deepest thoughts, the most profound conversations of our greatest philosophers!”
Sounds familiar? That’s because Lovelace is endowed by Padua (her favorite of the two characters, you can tell) with this special foresight that enables her to see the computer materialized when it was nothing but a technological dream, and even that a failing one.
So here’s to a multimodal book, where the weighing of historical accuracy takes place not in terms of a contradiction between True and False, but as an exchange of energies between truth and fiction. May the game (not a contest!) be won by both sides!

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.