Chuck Palahniuk’s “Pygmy”

July 28, 2009

Chuck Palahniuk ‘s tenth book, “Pygmy,” is simultaneously a bold literary experiment and a reprise of Palahniuk’s key themes. Framed as series of dispatches from the titular character to his totalitarian control agents, “Pygmy” narrates the darkly-humorous adventures of a gang of teenage terrorists who infiltrate the United States disguised as foreign exchanged students. Trained in the deadly arts, from karate to bio-terror, Pygmy and his fellow agents plot the ultimate science fair project: “Operation Havoc,” a massive bio-terrorist attack ripped whole and bleeding from the paranoia-addled mind of a “24” scriptwriter.

Crackling with social satire, “Pygmy” allows Palahniuk to skewer both the superficial shallowness of modern American culture and the unthinking, brutal horror of totalitarianism. Palahniuk’s trademark cynicism ensures his weighty themes hit the reader hard and fast. The author’s unflinching satire, combined with a high level of gross-out humor (involving everything from vibrators to Pygmy’s near -supernatural sense of smell) adds light to what could easily be mistaken for a bleak, nihilistic narrative, while the use of Pygmy’s broken, pidgin-English syntax provides its own essential novelty.
That novelty provides the book’s underlying strength as well as its major weakness.

“Pygmy” asks much more of the reader than Palahniuk’s previous works, to say nothing of the average New York Times bestselling thriller. A typical sentence from page two provides an illustration: “Only one step with foot, operative me to defile security of degenerate American snake nest.” The audio version, read by Paul Garcia, provides a lucid reading of Palahniuk’s text by brilliantly capturing Pygmy’s strange linguistic rhythms.

Yet “Pygmy” is no Kerouacian word-horde. Neither is it a conscious homage to postmodern experimentalism. Palahniuk is clearly having fun transcending the conventions of first-person narrative while taking the bold authorial step of asking his readers to sit down and pay attention. Unlike Palahniuk’s previous entries, “Rant” and “Haunted,” “Pygmy” does not shift across a multi-viewpoint spectrum. Instead, and in keeping with Palahniuk’s early works (“Fight Club” “Choke”) locks the reader into its main character’s world, a world colored by the contrast of excessive ideologies.

On one side, Pygmy, the trained terrorist sleeper, is a product of totalitarian indoctrination. To him the “American snake pit” of Midwestern life and Junior High School as one more control system, shot through with contradictions and hypocrisies. These two competing systems fuel the book’s satirical engines, reflecting their ability to fuel much of the world’s violence.

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