Chuck Palahniuk and “Snuff”: a review

This review is longer than the book deserves, but not longer than Palahniuk deserves. I review very briefly the author as a cultural force in the post-9/11 age and then the book I most recently read: “Snuff”. His latest work however is “Tall-Tale”.


Part I: Approaching the review

To start off this review, I must decide whether or not to treat this as a stand-alone book and review only it as if you knew nothing of the author, or if I should put this into perspective for you. The truth is I don’t know which one is worse. If I review “Snuff” as a stand-alone book, you may actually like it and think it sounds edgy and post-modern and dive into its gritty exploits and depravity. But if I put it into context with the body of work so far completed by Chuck Palahniuk, you may not hold in such high renown.

Part II: This History of Palahniuk’s releases

The truth is, he has done better books and this story, while feeling like a “grindhouse” dark-comedy exploitation porn is pretty over the top while at the same time not being very long and follows narrative patterns and styles that he has already done… and better. He’s ripped off his own work essentially!

You need to know something about Palahniuk if you’ve never read him before, and that is this: each of his books aim to turn over fucked-up taboo rocks and expose the dirty shadows cast by the vermin of our society and our culture. This is done all with a twist of dark humor and irony and certainly is not for everyone. He does this through coarse language, incest, blatant sexual descriptions, and near sociopathic characters exhibiting drug addictions, separation anxieties, family issues, inner conflict, and so on. This is the array of his work.

He began humbly enough with “Fight Club,” quickly garnering the attention of a loyal and fierce group of messed up, middle class, suburban kids who always wanted to live a reckless existence but never could move out into the city. Or they were too afraid. So living vicariously through fiction was the next best thing. In Palahniuk’s defense, in case I am painting him as some exploitative, carnival writer who only writes for shock value, I must admit that some of his work inspires and awakens those who don’t read much or think often. For me, I may have moved on, pompous as it sounds, but for others this work may be more than fresh.

His works are spectacles, never heavy on the story or plot so much as the individual characters and the themes that they represent. Reading a Palahniuk book is a lot like living with some crazy asshole for a few days in a situation way crazier than your real life situation while simultaneously being given a history lesson in something taboo. It’s apparent in Snuff as well as his earlier works like Survivor and Invisible Monster and Choke that he goes to great lengths to put into his first person narrative a character who yaks facts at the reader, like getting blood out of drapes or how to stay hard naturally or how Lauren Bacall cushed up egg shells in water and drank it to get her deep, sultry voice. Stuff like that, but contantly. Every book almost. And while this was original and cute the first time (like having indented block after indented block of a one or two sentence list of something for dramatic effect) it gets old. All of the main characters in his books, all equally fucked up, begin to blend together. Same voice, again and again.

I know what I’m talking about: having read Fight Club, Invisible Monster, Survivor, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, and Snuff all over the past nine years. He has a pretty even 50-50 split of hits and misses in my opinion, and Snuff ranks somewhere in the lower third. His upper third easily includes his earlier books, say Invisible Monster, Choke, and Survivor. I never thought Fight Club was developed enough honestly to be in anything higher than the middle third, even though it was young and angry and said something important. The movie was better for once. The next few books were simply better.

Part III: The book review of “Snuff”

So finally, the actual review. (I would write an “LOL” here, but that wouldn’t be professional.)

Snuff is a tough book to talk about because I don’t think it can be seen as anything more than a book for shock value unless you understand the author and what he is trying to do. As I said, it’s not all about the plot, which could have been good enough for a long short story or a novella. But not a novel. Most will finish the book having wanted more. Snuff is about character’s conditions, and themes of specifically America’s weird cultures and symptoms and obsessions.

Snuff pulls apart the porn industry, and likes to use real facts and anecdotes that are easily “googled” by anybody with a computer, (in fact, probably “googled” by Palahniuk) about the silent film area, the sexual habits of Roman empresses, and facts or rumors about Lauran Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe to make witty little allegories and parallels. Some of these makes sense, other times they feel forced to follow his pattern of writing he seems unable to change, and having to leave the story every few chapters for these anecdotes can be tiring.

The book is told from four perspectives as 600 men wait in a waiting room to be filmed having sex with one porn star, Cassie Wright, to break the world record for most consecutive fucks on camera during one session. It’s sick, and needless to say, she gets messed up.

*The remainder of this review may be graphic, offensive, and WILL contain spoilers.*

(No woman looks like this in the book. Maybe two decades ago when Cassie was young.)

Mr. 72 is a younger kid who wants to prove that he is her son that she gave up for adoption. He is in line–not to have sex with her–but to proclaim his love for her and get her to give up porn. The messed up part is that she was his favorite porn star until his foster mom walked in on him wacking it to Cassie Wright on the internet. She starts yelling at him, asking if he knows what he is doing. Asking if he knows who that is. And then she tells him. He hasn’t been able to become aroused since.

Mr. 137 is another perspective, he’s pretty neutral. He used to be a television star and is looking to make some kind of come back by being one of the dicks to go into the history books or possible have contributed to Cassie Wright’s death. There’s a lot of talk about whether or not Cassie can survive such… well… physical strains. That’s a good clean way to put it.

Mr. 600 is the professional in the room. He has done tons of porn, did some with Cassie in their younger days, and is now getting old and tan and leathery and wrinkly.

Sheila is the final piece of the book. Her chapters became bothersome because they didn’t add much to the plot as much as they added the “Chuck P. History Lessons.” He does this in every book in some form, and this book would not have been a full length novel without these chapters. The book is already only 190-some pages in an 11-font size in 5” x 8” paperback size. It’s really a long novella. I’m sure the word count barely makes the “novel length” standard.

So these four perspectives go in full rotatation (1, 2, 3, 4) for the entire book and things get predictable. You know before the reveal that Mr. 72 is probably Cassie’s kid, which you believe up until the true reveal which I also saw coming, which was that the real child given up for adoption was actually a girl, Shelia, which I will talk about later. I also knew that Mr. 600 was the father before it was revealed. I saw the Viagra pill and the cyanide pill getting mixed up before it happened. I knew before the cyanide pill was even mentioned that such a pill was in the locket around the neck of Mr. 600. The point is, that the book was interesting, but hardly informative with anything more than useless trivia and some creative wording for penises and vaginas and intercourse. Some of it was a stretch, like a kid with a pornographic thesaurus, and I can totally understand that someone who has never read this author would find it contrived and immature and shocking for the sake of being shocking.

Equally annoying is that not in just a few chapter, but for the entire book, in almost every chapter, there is some reference to a famous book or movie that Cassie Wright made a porn out of which is playing the waiting room for the 600 hard-ons. For example, Smokey and the Ass Bandit, Pulp Friction, Sperms of Endearment, Catch Her in the Eye, and A midsummer Night’s Ream. There are at least forty of these, and I would have preferred they come all at once. But the horse gets beaten to death in this one.

So clearly, by this point, you should feel my frustration for the flat characters and the hammy, repetitive, hackneyed plot. So I’ll spoil the ending now, then go on to talk about some of the interesting overarching themes and show you some quotes.

In the end, and I’m gonna tear this off like a band-aid for you right now… in the end Mr. 600 gets poisoned and Cassie thinks that she’s had her chance for fame stolen from her. So, Mr. 600, still erect on a stretcher being taken out by paramedics, gets jumped on and squatted on as Cassie gets her 600th penetration of any orifice with the camera guys trying to get it on film and the paramedics trying to put the paddles on his chest to bring him back to life. She gets off of him and is squatting a foot above him when the paddle are pressed to 600’s chest, and of course he thrusts up, reinserts himself into Cassie who is electrocuted, 600 comes back to life and Cassie almost dies. They are both fused and melted together now. Symbolically, the one thing that connect them in the first place, and arguably, all men and women. Had she died as it was planned by different people, the killer would have gone down in history and Shelia would have inherited a lifetime of video royalties and accounts from her mother.

So… yeah. Original. Sure. But also dumb. juvienile. A sixteen year-old would love this shit.

But somehow, it kind of works if you have a good sense of humor about it and know that this insane and sexual world is coming at you in the book. Do not expect Hemingway or Shakespeare. In fact, any Palahniuk book. He is writing for a very specific, disturbed, agnostic, self-loathing, humanistic kind of crowd. It’s complicated.

He could only work in this time (late 90s-2010s) and even then, he sometimes misses the mark. In the post-9/11, no-longer-innocent-America, this stuff can flourish I suppose. People want the envelope pushed. The fantastic made real. The disgusting brought into the light.

There were things I like about control between men and women and consumerist tendancies and golden calf worshipping. I also enjoyed the surrogate parent angle, especially how all lost boys are trying to find their mother figure, coming in the form of idolizing porn stars and “m.i.l.f.s” and the like. By the way, Mr. 72 had a blow up doll of his mom before he knew it was his mom. Ew, right? Funny, but… ew.

“…the moment you start to make yourself available to any man, he starts to take you for granted. Maybe the first time [Cassie Wright] meets her son he’ll love her. But the second time, he’ll ask her for money. The third time, he’ll ask for a job, a car, a fix. He’ll blame her for everything wrong he’s done in his life. He’ll trash her. Rub her face in every mistake she ever made. Call her a whore if she doesn’t hand over everything he wants.” (p. 89)

That’s not just about mother’s and lost sons, but men and women in general. The fact that Cassie receives mother’s day cards, hundreds from different people all claiming to be her son, enhances this idea that people want to be loved and seen and matter to someone on a primal level.

On another note, a lot of the characters know this isn’t about love and say as much.

Shelia is the aid to Cassie for the whole book, but Cassie doesn’t know that Shelia has discovered that she is her true daughter. And this part is interesting as well: why did Cassie let it slip that she gave up a boy for adoption when it was really a girl? Did she want the little girl to grow up in peace? I don’t think so. She wanted the clamoring of the public’s young boys who were without parents or had been adopted to follow her into the future as they aged and love her and ask questions and buy her shit. She kept her career alive in a way that would not have worked had she told the truth that she had given up a daughter. Teenage girls would not have chased after Cassie. As you can imagine, that’s messed up on a few levels, of both the boys in question and Cassie Wright. Palahniuk likes to stomp on ethics and morals and show that when people are pressed against a wall or are faced with great things to gain, they will do just about anything. Sick.

I’m not going to write it here, but there are about a dozen names for the dudes, like pud-pullers, chicken-chokers, meat-strokers, sperm-spreaders, glue-shooters, and way more. And this becomes so gimmicky that it can’t be enjoyed.

“Porn is only a job you take after you’ve abandoned all hope.” (p. 107)

The above quote I liked a lot because every single character was on their way to being a totally normal person until, at some point, the porn industry or temptations crept into their lives and irreparably changed them for the worst. These people do not have hearts. There is a few instances of the inevitability of aging and the immortality given by having a video or a being recorded or holding a record. People’s greed for greatness ruin them.

And I leave you now with these final words. Do I recommend this book? No. Do I recommend Chuck Palahniuk? Hell yes. There is a book for every fucked-up, lonely,  or curious kid out there under the age of 30. After that age, these books are just silly. Here are the final narrative lines from the final chapter by Shelia. Last page:

“With my other hand, I tap my chest. Tapping where my own heart’s supposed to be. For an instant, everything feels so important. Almost real. And I say it again. My secret name. Raising my hand, just a tiny bit higher, so someone might finally look and see me.”

I like this because no one is who they seem, they are all given numbers or have porn names or secret names and everyone just wants to be seen for them, not some shadowy identity. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to have the porn industry or something. I don’t know. But I do know no one actually died and the book is called “Snuff.” What a let down. But I guess they’re already dead inside. At least some of ‘em.

I mean, come on. You think there is one truly happy person in that fucked up world of theirs?

See me. Fuck me. Love me.

I want to be important.

End scene.

Get cleaned up. Here’s your cash.

Bye, commodity.


(Palahnuik, Chuck. Snuff, Anchor Books, Random House, New York, NY. 2008)


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