PYGMY continues noir-thriller/satirist Chuck Palahniuk’s
tradition of protagonists designed to make us feel worse about
ourselves while not entirely fitting the bill of the contrarian
ideals they supposedly uphold. Agent 67 is a diminutive though
highly trained secret agent from an unnamed country with designs on
destroying America (cough, China). He only speaks in the present
tense with a curious grammar, but he’s well versed --- like
all supergenius terrorist children --- in the art of killing people
and the science of how. He has infiltrated the country as a foreign
exchange student in an unassuming American family with a cadre of
fellow agents engaged in Operation Havoc, an unspecified plan
involving impregnating as many teenagers as possible to sow the
seeds of rebellion.
But like Tender Branson in SURVIVOR and Tyler Durden in FIGHT
CLUB, Pygmy is not the perfect America-hater we expect. He falters
at impregnating an American of his own. Despite an education most
helicopter parents could only dream about, his impoverished sense
of American culture yields amusing and awkward moments of culture
clashing. In any family but “cow father, chicken mother, and
pig dog brother,” his cover would easily be blown --- but
there’s the rub of this family and town of impressively
oblivious people. (This may be somewhat explained by the cocktails
of drugs to which the family is addicted: the father to Viagra, the
mother to Zoloft, the son to Ritalin.)
The result of these character flaws is similar to
Palahniuk’s other novels --- the otherwise alien protagonist
is made human, allowing the plot to move from a fantastical premise
to a jarring and evocative narrative culminating in something both
cruel and humane. And PYGMY does deliver on a satire that, unlike
previous novels, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Instead
of the humor stemming from gravelly-voiced one-liners, it comes
from the awkward failed attempts of an overly serious terrorist to
destroy a country he understands so little. PYGMY pokes at its
genre as much as at its target.
You can read the novel like another straight-up Palahniuk book,
but doing so yields unsatisfying results. Palahniuk selects the
most obvious targets --- Wal-Mart, family dysfunction, the cult of
the individual, America’s collective drug addiction, etc.
Pygmy is the perfect dictator-worshipping communist, and his
critiques are blisteringly vocal. But this also makes them dull.
We’ve heard all these diatribes before, and they don’t
carry much weight. Read on this level, PYGMY is a tired play on the
same theme. However, when viewed as a lampoon of caricatured
ideologies --- both American and other --- there’s some
genuine humor in it.
Still, some aspects of the novel never coalesce even with a more
charitable reading. As mentioned before, Pygmy only speaks in the
present tense with a syntax that makes Yoda sound comprehensible.
His grammar isn’t consistent but is overused; it becomes
tired quickly. His blistery rapid-fire speech launches barbs with
ease but is unnecessarily difficult to understand. The plot gets
lost in Palahniuk’s at-times desperate attempts at stylized
speech. The line between carnivalesque and comprehensible gets
blurred too far, and reading becomes more of a chore than a
pleasure as you strain to figure out what just happened.
PYGMY is an intriguing mixed bag that centers on culture clash
with a Palahniuk twist. It’s one of his least dark books,
which works to its benefit and detriment --- we gain whimsically
awkward humor, though we must drudge through stylistic elements
that distract more than enrich the reading experience.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 23, 2011