In terrorist tale, author and character take risks

By Eric Liebetrau
Globe Correspondent / June 18, 2009
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Despite his status as a consistently best-selling author, Chuck Palahniuk has always taken chances with his fiction, creating outside-the-box story lines that often find characters treading the margins of a society that shuts them out. Tyler Durden - the brash, swaggering protagonist of “Fight Club,’’ played by Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s film adaptation - may be the most recognizable to a popular audience, but Palahniuk’s novels are filled with memorable misfits, from Tender Branson (“Survivor’’) and Victor Mancini (“Choke’’) to Buster Casey (“Rant’’) and Cassie Wright (“Snuff’’), an aging porn star seeking the world record for serial fornication.

The titular character in “Pygmy,’’ Palahniuk’s 10th novel, has a significantly more sinister purpose in mind - “Operation Havoc,’’ a devastating terrorist plot against America. Sent along with other operatives from an unspecified totalitarian state, 13-year-old Pygmy - who is highly trained in martial arts and weapons handling - poses as a foreign-exchange student to infiltrate the United States. He narrates his experiences via aggressive but often hilarious dispatches, reviewing his plans of destruction and spouting the anti-American vitriol that was drilled into his consciousness from birth.

His level of indoctrination becomes clear in flashbacks to his military training, which included not only rigorous physical tests but also mental and spiritual brainwashing. His commanders took every opportunity to laud the teachings of Hitler, Mao, and other infamous dictators.

Palahniuk’s novels have always been driven by black humor and a unique, often uncomfortable mix of subtle satire and outright mocking rhetoric, and his minimalist, verb-heavy style propels the narratives through the many bizarre, occasionally shocking events. In “Pygmy,’’ he ventures further into linguistic experimentation, inventing a sort of pidgin language for his protagonist. Upon meeting his host family, Pygmy thinks, “host father present as vast breathing cow, blowing out putrid stink diet heavy with dead slaughterhouse flesh, bellowing stench of Viagra breath during cow father reach to clasp hand of operative me.’’

The author impressively maintains the consistency of this twisted English throughout the novel, and it serves as a suitable vehicle for Pygmy’s many trenchant societal observations. The hollowness of contemporary American life bears the brunt of most of the author’s satirical wit (“during American winter youth attend compulsive levels of teaching; during summer, American youth must attend shopping mall’’), but Palahniuk also offers grim, illustrative portraits of a totalitarian state that could be representative of any number of current regimes.

Reminiscing about his years of brutal preparation for his mission, during which he was taken from his family, Pygmy recalls with fondness the scenes of strict military discipline: “Helmets without end, inspired howitzer, field guns, siege cannon, and noble battle tank stretched out one horizon until the opposite, always progressing, no able enemy this state resist.’’

As the young terrorist moves toward fulfillment of his goal, he must, like all teenagers, navigate the perils of high school, including bullies, lunchroom politics, the model UN, and school dances. “Occasional male student approach female,’’ he notes, “request mutual gyrate to demonstrate adequate reproductive partner, fast gyrate to display no cripple.’’

Pygmy also attempts to manipulate his host brother and sister, who prove more problematic than he anticipated, and they will play an important role in the success or failure of his mission. The rapid-fire conclusion is rushed, but readers who stick it out through the linguistic difficulties will be rewarded with a full portrait of an unforgettable character. “Pygmy’’ is yet another unique direction for an author who continues to challenge and intrigue readers.

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.


By Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 241 pp., $24.95

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