Passing on Pygmy
Pygmy is a darkly satirical, disgusting and harshly critical novel. Of course, as is Palahniuk’s style, he lambastes the greedy and corrupt American culture through the eyes and adjective-heavy, stilted language of the main character, Pygmy. Pygmy is a foreign exchange student from an un-named Socialist/Capitalist country that has trained and indoctrinated several “agents” from the age of four. The country has trained these children up through age 13, and sent them to the United States to enact “Operation Havoc.”
As a character, there is not much to love about Pgymy. His rigorous training and brainwashing has stripped him of most of his humanity. The only person he seems able to connect with is his host sister, whom he refers to as “Cat Sister.” The rest of his host family gets a similar matched animal – Pig Dog Brother, Chicken Mother and Cow Father. Cow Father is the only main character who ever manages a real title – Donald Cedar.
Pygmy slowly integrates into life with the Cedars – attending school dances, playing dodgeball and participating in spelling bees all to comedic effect. He also starts to follow the protocol of his training – procuring money and supplies to craft a science fair project which is an integral part of Operation Havoc. However, during his first few interactions with American culture, Pygmy is threatened by a bully – whom he overpowers and sodomizes in a Wal-Mart bathroom. The scene was excrutiatingly graphic, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I could continue with the book after hearing all the details of this encounter.
Which brings me to the idea that having the material read to me was the only reason I succeeded in finishing the novel. The animated and amusing voice of the narrator allowed me to be somewhat removed and distant from the actions being described, and therefore it was easier to accept what I was hearing. If I were reading the rape scene from the page, it would have been a much more intimate experience involving more senses (touching the page, reading the words). While the assault was audibly traumatizing, the experience of listening to it allowed me to continue on, slightly less disturbed than I should have been.
That is frankly the most disturbing element of this novel, which tells you something since it also features a school shooting, a bloody near drowning baptism, and a brutal scene of matricide.
But for me, the aspect that stood out most was the sexual content. The sexualization of the other 13 year old children Pygmy interacts with, the vibrators and fondling of the host mother’s vagina, the act of sex as a way of establishing power (as is apparent with the rape scene) are dominant elements in the book.
Palahniuk has often used sex to shock the readers and float the story on, but here it seemed forced (literally in some cases) and un-neccesary. There was never any particular message being shared to make these sexualizations relevant – so they stood out glaringly as merely the horny insertions of the author. I get the puberty thing – I do. But few 13 year old boys are seriously contemplating rape or enacting it nearly as much as Pygmy.
Honestly – not sure how much more of Palahniuk I can stomach after this book. He’s got another released – Snuff. But I’m probably going to pass, as I see it being on par with the likes of Rant and Pygmy. And clearly it’s about snuff films, which I have no interest in reading about. Nor am I excessively compelled to read about the rape of men or women which seems to be his trend lately.
I don’t need to be shocked by every novel I read. I need to feel like the author understands and has empathy towards humanity. This book was full of vitriol, disturbing sexual scenarios (especially for underage youth) and a sour attitude towards America…and honestly lacked many elements of human connection. The more works Palahniuk churns out – the further it seems he drifts from reality and from a respect and compassion towards his characters. This book was full of characterizations and tired satirical anger towards American culture. It seems that rather than evolving from earlier works when this attitude was present – he is devolving. Hmph.
As one of my favorite authors, it saddens me to think that Palahniuk may have now become the Howard Stern of the literary world. Misogynistic, over-sexualized and sour towards humanity. I don’t listen to Stern’s radio show. And I may have to give up Palahniuk’s books.
It’s worth mentioning that Palahniuk does try something experimental with the narrative and voice Pygmy, and it only sort of works. Coming from the pen of an aggressive white male however – the voice of Pygmy sometimes feels patronizing, and at other times inconsistent. Pygmy may choose the easy and exact word to describe one object or action, and then a convoluted sentence to explain something basic like a door opening or someone retrieving an object from their pocket. And trying to puzzle out Pygmy’s word salad at times is also quite tedious.
Another thing it does well is present a fairly negative view of both Capitalism and the extremism and lack of choice/freedoms in Socialist/Capitalist states. The two are juxtaposed quite often together – and Palahniuk is equally harsh with both. So – kudos for being critical of the main forms of government. But neither extreme is really a clear or fair representation.
I salute Palahniuk for trying something new, but overall Pygmy gets a pass from me. As well as a warning to potential readers that the material is nearly as toxic as the proposed end results of Operation Havoc.
But, as always, judge for yourself. And check out this fun book trailer.
A few other reviews with which I mostly agree: