Gerund's Reviews > Pygmy

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
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May 27, 2009

it was ok
Read in May, 2009

Cult American author Chuck Palahniuk of Fight Club fame can usually be counted upon for entertaining, eye-opening dissections of the ridiculousness of contemporary American culture, through his deft wielding of satire, hyperbole and gratuitous violence.

Indeed, it wouldn't be a Palahniuk novel if it weren't bristling with vulgarities, crassness, physical torture and sexual mayhem, and in that sense fans won't be disappointed with his 10th novel.

Pygmy has scenes of carnage, violations of the body, various perversions and even a killer dildo. Yet, despite having all the right ingredients, this is a relatively pallid effort from the usually invigorating writer.

The eponymous protagonist and narrator hails from an unnamed communist country that sounds like a cross between China and North Korea, though clearly is neither. He is 13 years old (at least that's what his passport says) but is small for that age, hence his nickname.

With several other operatives bearing Second World names like Magda, Oleg, Ling and Tibor, Pygmy is on secret mission to carry out "Operation Havoc" in the United States, a terrorist plot which involves masquerading as exchange students and being hosted by white, Midwestern, Christian families.

Pygmy's host family, the Cedars, is a mix of a stereotypically born-again all-American family -- the first gift Pygmy receives from them is a "Property of Jesus" T-shirt -- with a stereotypically dysfunctional all-American family, complete with ineffectual father, sex-toy-addicted mother, a fat brother who is a bully as well as bullied, and the smart sister who becomes our protagonist's object of affection.

Or, to use Pygmy's literally dehumanising comparisons, the father is a "vast breathing cow", the mother is a "blinking chicken", the brother is a "pig dog" and the sister is a "stealth cat".

Written as a series of diary entries or "dispatches" about how his mission is going, Pygmy's voice is a headache-inducing exaggeration of Chinglish, bad grammar mixed with bombastic phrases, quotes from socialist or despotic luminaries, and misanthropic and mysogynistic sentiment.

A typical line: "For official record, dermis of cat sister indicate harboring full many viable human egg for reproduction of future operative. Within cotton bodice, mammary swell to manufacture diet for many future agent."

Part of the fun of a Palahniuk novel is the mockery of the American way, and having a school-aged protagonist allows the author to make various hilarious observations about its education system, from school dances to science fairs, mock United Nations conferences and swing choirs:

"All must sing nonsense or no allowed college, no advanced physics and training. Force compelled to sing how yearning for location on top arched light spectrum of light wavelengths created by precipitate.
Exact song expressed Judy Garland, woeful matyr, slaughtered pawn of capitalist entertainment machine combined pharmaceutical complex."

Other chapters recall Pygmy's childhood under a totalitarian regime, basically a jab at the various over-the-top communist stereotypes prevalent in the West. Pygmy and his peers were taken away from their parents at a young age and put through a rigourous training programme, learning college-level chemistry along with gongfu moves like "Mighty Python Smother" and "Cobra One-Strike No-Blood" in preparation for their mission.

Matching these stereotypes in their unsubtlety is the idea is that Pygmy, for all the brain-washing, secretly has a soft heart, as seen in a childhood scene where he is initially reluctant to see a white rat get killed in a lab test. That this redeeming quality will affect how the story plays out is predictable. However, thanks to the cartoonish portraits that pass for characters in this novel, the change of heart does not feel earned, feeling more obligatory than inevitable.

Still, the author, in his brash, in-your-face way, does manage to tug at the heartstrings at some points. Some of most poignant scenes involve Pygmy's schoolmate Trevor Stonefield, a disturbed bully with a secret vulnerability. (Some of the most gory scenes involve him too, but in the Pahlaniuk universe, heart-rending and blood-letting often go hand-in-hand anyway.)

Despite its flaws, a bad Palahniuk is still a Palahniuk, and the narrative is gripping enough -- this is undeniably a page-turner. However, this time the big twist at the end feels disappointing and, worse, forced; less mind-blowing and just.... boring.
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