August 6, 2008

Book review: "Snuff," by Chuck Palahniuk

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Snuff
By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51788-1

(All links in today's essay are work-safe!)

As I'm sure a certain amount of CCLaP's readers are already aware, there's a new type of pornography that's become more and more popular within the last half-decade now, a type that I'm positive will eventually say more about the Bush Era to future historians than just about any other cultural detritus we leave behind. Known by various names -- including hate porn, gonzo porn, apocalypse porn and Nazi porn -- the videos themselves can sometimes vary widely in actual subject matter, but with all of them sharing a number of common ideological traits: they all feature cartoonishly outrageous sex acts and concepts; and they all revel in the most cruel, cold, inhuman ways that the entire topic of sex can even be looked at in the first place. So in other words, imagine an orgy between a group of Nazi soldiers and a group of Berlin prostitutes at the end of WWII, the night before the Russians are set to invade and slaughter them all; imagine the kind of sex that would take place under such circumstances, and you suddenly have a disturbingly clear picture of the exact type of pornography currently making more money post-9/11 than any other type of porn in existence.

Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk

It's a subject that's been practically begging for someone to write a brilliant postmodern novel about, precisely because it brings up so many disturbing issues concerning the human condition, sexism, the long-term mental damage that a fascist society causes all of its citizens, and a lot more; and wouldn't you know, just leave it up to Chuck Freaking Palahniuk to be that first mainstream postmodern novelist to do so. Because ladies and gentlemen, the topic I'm talking about today is exactly the subject of Palahniuk's newest novel, the short and terse sex-horror tale Snuff; and before you read any more of today's essay, before you ever go to add the book to your Amazon wish list, you need to be aware that this is the ugliest book about sex ever published by a mainstream press, and that it has the potential to cause lingering graphic nightmares in anyone not already versed on the subject of apocalypse porn. (Indeed, chapter 25 alone contains what might just be the ugliest story about sex ever written in human history; and oh, believe me, you'll know what I'm talking about when you finally read it yourself.)

Make no mistake, the story has to be this ugly for Palahniuk to make his point -- his point, after all, being to examine why this kind of porn has become so popular during the 2000s, and why certain people in certain societies are attracted to it -- but it's an incredibly disturbing story nonetheless, a story so disturbing that you owe it to yourself to seriously ponder whether or not you actually want to read such a thing. And that, frankly, is probably the most chilling detail of all; that Palahniuk's whole point seems to be that we in America are simply living in a very disturbing society right now, a torture-tolerant, celebrity-obsessed, apocalypse-embracing neocon paradise that is causing more and more mental damage to our collective psyche, something that none of us want to publicly acknowledge which is why the problem is getting worse instead of better. Ultimately, just like most of his other books, Snuff is a cracked funhouse mirror being held up to contemporary society; and just like most of his other books, it's a view that many people will not want to look at whatsoever, or in some cases even have the stomach to stand.

The novel is, in fact, a look at a "gangbang," which for the purposes of this review needs to be explained in a little more detail; because, see, there's a difference in porn terms between a commercial gangbang (something filmed and released all the time in that industry) and, say, a group of drunk frat boys doing something unspeakable to a passed-out undergrad in the middle of the night in their rec-room. Because in the porn world, these gangbangs are mostly publicity stunts, the numbers ratcheted up to impossible levels for the amount of press such things receive (and hence the number of units sold afterwards); 200, 300, 400 people sometimes in a single session, the entire thing very clinical and regulated and ritualized, about as erotic as trying to get several thousand people through a line at a rollercoaster at an amusement park on a Saturday afternoon. This is why such videos are sometimes called "gonzo porn," why I say that it's the concept behind the video that is just as important as the actual content; because the actual sex in these "gangbang" videos barely exists, with many of these events for example allowing each "performer" only 60 seconds apiece with the "star" (timed with a stopwatch and everything), most of them barely able to even achieve penetration itself before suddenly being whisked out the door again. It's the concept of this woman being put into such a submissive position that is the real turn-on for people who like this kind of stuff; it's not the minimalist sex itself that's erotically satisfying, but what it says about humanity that the video even exists in the first place.

Palahniuk's book, then, takes a look at five different characters all involved with one such commercial gangbang video shoot: the aging porn veteran in the middle of it all (think a down-on-her-luck Ginger Lynn); her young radical-feminist alt-dot-sex assistant, also the production manager of the shoot itself; a famous fellow-aging pretty-boy male porn star who will be the 600th and last lay of the event, known for his enormous schlong and rapidly crumbling looks (very obviously a thinly-veiled Peter North); an obsessed teenager who has basically allowed his adopted parents to kick him out of their house in order to attend; and most bizarrely of all, a gay closeted Hollywood actor who was once a popular television cop, until it came out that he himself had been the subject of a gay gangbang video when younger, who is now at this straight video shoot in an attempt to get "outed" as a heterosexual TMZ-style and jump-start his mainstream career again. Because oh, did I not mention this? Everyone's under the impression that the porn star is going to die during the shoot, originally because of a bizarre medical phenomenon that the producers randomly hear about one day, the very real but rare vaginal embolism that can sometimes occur when a woman has something unusual put inside her, or too many things put inside her too quickly. (Go read about it if you want to know why such a thing actually kills a few hundred women a year in real life; it's too gross to get into here.)

The people behind the shoot start playing this detail up, hoping that it'll drum up more publicity; but the more everyone starts thinking about it, the more they realize just what a goldmine it would be for everyone involved if the woman does actually die during the shoot, not only for all the copies that would eventually be bought online through shady international servers and the like, but also because it would undoubtedly outrage the American public, probably leading to Congress banning the shooting of such videos, making that shoot legally the last gangbang literally in the history of porn. (And besides, what apocalypse-embracing monster doesn't want to go around being able to say, "I own the c-ck that literally killed a porn star?") With dollar signs flashing in all their eyeballs, then, the various hucksters and crazies involved with the shoot start making nefarious plans to make sure all ends as expected; one sneaks a poison capsule into the event, another starts planning a series of spectacularly violent events to end it all.

Yeah, ready to slit your wrists out of sheer depression yet? No? Well, how about if we add the fact that the teenage boy might or might not be the porn star's illegitimate child, given up for adoption at birth? And that he knows this and has obsessively decided to attend the shoot as a performer anyway? Or that part of this novel consists of watching the closeted Hollywood actor slowly overdose on Viagra over the course of 200 pages, with physical results that are painful to even read about? Or that one of the people making secret plans for the porn star's death is the porn star herself, obsessed as she is with celebrity suicide and how history will perceive her? Now are you ready to kill yourself? Because let's make no mistake -- in true Palahniukian style, this novel is about as bleak as a bleak tale gets, a look at a cold and remorseless universe where such concepts as love and intimacy don't even exist. In the world of Snuff, there is no such thing as pleasant sex; all of it is tinged with the disgusting mix of baby oil and male sweat and the dust of Cheetos from the craft-services table a few minutes before, the smells coming from the single toilet all 600 men are forced to share, the blood and saliva of the horned-up almost naked former prisoners getting into nervy fistfights with each other in the green room before their numbers are finally called.

Ugh -- it makes me shudder just recounting the details to you! And that's an important thing for you to understand, a thing I don't think I can emphasize enough; that if even I -- even a guy who when younger used to be an edgy sex columnist himself, even a guy who was already familiar with the details of apocalypse porn before picking up this book -- if even I am creeped out and disgusted by Snuff, for all you normal folks there is a very real chance of being literally traumatized by some of the things mentioned here. This is a detailed look at the absolute ugliest ways that human beings treat other human beings, told through the filter of an activity that is supposed to be joyous and life-affirming; the fact that this exact type of porn has become the biggest money-maker in the entire adult industry in the 2000s says something profound, says something important about the times we live in. This is not just a story about ugly sex, but about a society that could create that environment in the first place -- a society desensitized to torture and cruelty, a society of "Last Nights Party" and "Girls Gone Wild," a society of million-person terrorist watchlists and random citizen wiretaps. As the Nazis proved, you can only run a society in such a way for so long before more and more people simply start snapping; and as evidenced by this book, this is exactly what Palahniuk seems to be arguing, that gonzo-porn and its resulting popularity is the exact first sign of an entire American society about to crack under pressure, the exact sign of what we can continue to expect in bigger and bigger doses under another neocon administration (God forbid).

The book's got its problems, I'll give you that -- for example, I never like it when an author tries to awkwardly shoehorn in the actual reference material used when researching their book, and especially in the case of someone like Palahniuk who writes more surreal fairytales than reality-based ones. (For example, ask me how jarring and out-of-place it seemed to come across a reference in the middle of the book to the very real sex columnist Violet Blue.) Also, the usual Palahniukian stylistic problems are on display as normal in Snuff, which people new to his work should be aware of; he has a bad habit, for example, of repeating annoying phrases way too often, simply in a failed academic-style attempt to be clever, and in general writes in a short, punchy, yet conceptually overblown way that is sure to drive some of you absolutely batsh-t. (I mean, come on, Chuck, what was all that crap about the porn star becoming this fantasy mother-idol figure for an entire generation of young men raised on '80s adult videos and without strong parental role models? Only a gay man with an MFA would come up with something so ridiculously metaphorical about a subject like straight porn.) That all said, though, I urge all of you who think they can handle such material to give it a try here; the novel has subtly astounding things to say about the times we live in, done in what I consider a much more effective manner than simply sitting down and watching an alarmist "Dateline" special report on the subject. Just...you know. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Out of 10:
Story: 8.7
Characters: 9.7
Style: 9.5
Overall: 9.4, but with a special warning about obscene content

(Enjoy this review? Make sure to also check out my review last year of Palahniuk's Rant, a very different novel in nature but still just as good.)

Read even more about Snuff: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:41 PM, August 6, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |