by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 256 pages
Sometime in mid 1999 frat boys discovered Fight Club. Ignored at the box office and loathed by critics, the movie found its target audience in dorm rooms and fraternity houses across America from Cal State to Cornell. The movie’s masculine, hyper-violent, anti-corporate philosophy resonated with the privileged yet disenchanted beneficiaries of the roaring economy of the 1990’s. Movie posters were plastered to walls, boxing clubs were started in basements, and guys walked around campus debated the ontological implications of questions like, “Seriously, how much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”
At the forefront of this movement was Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club’s author and the sage who gave voice to Tyler Durden. Overnight Palahniuk became the mouthpiece and elder statesman of the “generation of men raised by women” he helped identify. Having reacquainted his disciples with their lost masculinity, he used subsequent bestsellers like Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Choke to lead them on a merry quest to expose all that is superficial, fleeting, and phony in society.
PYGMY, Palahniuk’s latest, continues in the well-trod boot prints of his previous work, while also turning a satiric eye toward America’s endless conflict with those pesky terrorists. Like Fight Club, it is again an “anti-hero vs. the American Dream” story. American materialism, organized religion, and the mainstream media are once again beaten about the head, and, of course, the narrative is seasoned with plenty of the disturbing imagery and black humor for which he has become known.
PYGMY is the story of a dozen highly-trained teenage terrorists from an unnamed totalitarian state going undercover as “exchange students” in an undisclosed Midwestern city. Through a series of first-person dispatches from Agent 67, nicknamed “Pygmy” due to his small stature, we watch as the operatives move in with host families, go to high school, attend church, shop at Wal-Mart, and live the American dream. All the while they are making preparations to execute a large-scale terrorist operation, code named “Operation Havoc,” the nature of which is a mystery for most of the book with one notable exception: they are all supposed to impregnate an American girl or get impregnated by an American boy.
Palahniuk’s commentary is fairly transparent. Pygmy’s host family meets him at the airport with a “Property of Jesus” shirt and an American flag. They tell him, “We’ll make an American out of you or, swear to our Lord almighty God, we’re gonna die trying.” The American high-schoolers are racist, sex-crazed, stoned, and vicious. The adults who are not pedophiles are either comatose from prescription drugs or holding sex toy parties in their living rooms. To be fair, the terrorists’ homeland receives the same uncharitable treatment. It is a militaristic, poverty-stricken dictatorship demanding total servitude and unquestioning devotion to the State.
Palahniuk presents both sides of the “War on Terror” as caricatures. Everyone is either expressing a stereotype or embodying one. It creates a compelling contrast. The Americans are personifications of how they are viewed around the world: spoiled, amoral, ethnocentric, and greedy. Similarly, the operatives embody all that terrorists are assumed to be: religious zealots, brainwashed, hateful, cold, and brutally violent.
The fact that the main characters are all teenagers adds a sophomoric, insincere tone to the interactions between the two cultures. Emotion, bias, and groupthink rule the day and political correctness is thrown to the wind as the kids gleefully ascribe racial or biologically descriptive nicknames. Pygmy’s host father provides a window into the host country/foreigner relationship while introducing Pygmy to the congregation of their church:
Not long ago, a young man came to us, dirty, ragged, smelling like the dung of the cooking fires of his primitive homeland. This stunted child, crusted with scabs and stooped with rickets, with a stomach bloated from malnutrition…discarded by an uncaring socialist bureaucracy…a dull, savage dictatorship reluctant to admit the faintest light of free speech or Christian charity…
While a bit reductionist and over the top, there are times when the condescending sentiments of American empathy do not sound far a field from the op/ed pages or nightly news.
Similar to the humor of Sasha Baron Cohen, Palahniuk’s affinity for lurid subject matter and political incorrectness has elicited a range of critical response from “ground-breaking” to “disgusting.” PYGMY is no exception. Fans of the author’s previous work will be glad to know that the book is replete with the violence, sex, and violent sex which have become his trademark. While reading the book, there were several times when I resonated with the sentiments of the Onion A.V. Club who said of the gruesome scenes in Palahniuk’s Haunted, “[they are] piled up to such extremes that it seems like Palahniuk is just double-daring himself to top each new vile degradation with something worse.” The boundaries of good taste are constantly pushed and frequently crossed, often without any apparent reason (a school shooting, a violent sodomizing in a bathroom, and a decapitation, to name a few).
Thankfully, the scarring effect of these scenes is diminished by the intentionally jumbled, grammatically awkward style in which the book is written. Pygmy uses a strange syntax that sounds a bit like Yoda would were Frank Oz not a native English speaker. While it makes for difficult reading at times, the scrambled style adds to the impression that the story is being told by a foreigner. School becomes “structured compulsory education center.” Church becomes “religious propaganda distribution outlet.” High school dances are “student mating rituals.” Etc. The creative grammar also provides the opportunity for many humorous observations on the more absurd aspects of American life.
Encounter frequent memorial honoring American battle warrior, great officer similar to Lenin. Many vast mural depicting most savvy United State war hero. Rotating statue. Looming visage noble American colonel. Courageous, renown of history, Colonel Sanders, image forever accompanied odor of sacrificial meat. Eternal flame offering wind savory perfume roasted flesh.
It is through Pygmy’s often confused yet always disdainful interactions with American culture that Palahniuk comments on his favorite societal ills. Our glut of opportunities has paralyzed us from doing anything of value. The mainstream media is a pack of vultures preying on tragedy. Our “diversity” and “individualism” have created a fractured, isolated population. Americans are defined by the things we own.
Sound familiar? Can’t you hear Tyler Durden saying, “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the shoes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis?” Halfway through PYGMY, I was prepared to write it off as a thinly-veiled Fight Club 2. It was only Palahniuk’s commentary on Post-9/11 America—made toward the end, as Operation Havoc draws nigh—that separated the book (thematically) from his other fare.
The very fact that “Post-9/11” has become the accepted label for our current political climate demonstrates how deeply terrorism has ingrained itself into the American psyche. Like it or not, terror and the threat of terror have defined the first decade of the 21st century. Anyone under the age of six has never been alive when there was not a war going on in Iraq. Journalists and talking heads love to rant about out how the terrorists have robbed us of our innocence, security, and hassle-free air travel. Not Palahniuk. He would rather talk about what they have given us: a foil, a foe, a moral opposite.
At its core, PYGMY is about the underlying symbiotic relationship between the Great Satan and her enemies. They give us the feeling of moral superiority we hold so dear; we give them a purpose and a holy calling. We need the terrorists. We embrace the terrorists like Pygmy’s host family at the airport.
PYGMY turns this paradigm on its head by casting children as the villains and placing them—not in seedy hotels or foreign consulates—but in our homes, high schools, and churches. The teenage terrorists and the American families live together, despising each other while simultaneously rooting their identities in relation to each other. By the end, the lives of the terrorists and victims have become so intertwined, it is difficult to imagine one without the other.
In one of the book’s most telling passages, Pygmy himself realizes the futility of his mission.
This agent ponder if entire being operative me pitted for destroy America, annihilate homosexual, crackpot Methodist religion, Lutheran and Baptist cult, extinguish all decadent bourgeoisie – subsequent successful total such destruction: Render this agent obsolete? Of no worth? If no possessing vile enemy – will operative me cease also exist?
It is interesting to wonder if the leaders of Al-Qaeda or Hamas have ever contemplated what would become of them if they were to succeed. When your entire ethos is predicated on conflict, how can you live in peace? Or, more to the point, when your national identity is rooted in the moral superiority of your economic, political, and religious systems, how can you exist without a debate partner?
Simple. You find one that can never be defeated. And so we have.
Kent Woodyard is a regular contributor to McSweeny's Internet Tendency and edits The Talking Mirror.