About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, March 12, 2010

#18 - Pygmy

Now this was a surprise. A chapter or 2 into Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy (New York, 2009), I almost gave up. This was my first of Palahniuk's books -- I've never even seen the movie based on Fight Club -- so all I'm going on here is a vague sense from reviews and such that his work is dark, disturbing, gritty, et al. And initially, the disjointed language and brutal violence (in the second chapter, the protagonist sodomizes a bully in a public restroom) put me off.

Jacket summary: "'Begins here first account of operative me, agent number 67 on arrival Midwestern American airport greater ______ area. Flight ______. Date ______. Priority mission top success to complete. Code name: Operation Havoc.'

"Thus speaks Pygmy, one of a handful of young adults from a totalitarian state sent to the United States, disguised as exchange students, to live with typical American families and bldnc in, all the while planning an unspecified act of massive terrorism. Palahniuk depicts Midwestern life through the eyes of this thoroughly indoctrinated littlekiller, who hates us with a passion, in this cunning double-edged satire of an American xenophobia that might, in fact, be completely justified. For Pygmy and his fellow operatives are cooking up something big, something truly awful, that will bring this big dumb country and its fat dumb inhabitants to their knees.

"It's a comedy. And a romance."

I'm glad I stuck with it. It is violent, disorienting, and disturbing, but it's also scathing and funny. With the exception of the aforementioned "clear-yellow" bully (and later, school shooter), Trevor Stonefield, few of the characters merit a proper name. He describes his host family thus:
"For official record, 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. From tissue compress rate of father fist, bone-to-cow ratio, host father contain 31.2 percent body fat."

"Host mother present as blinking chicken, chin of face bony sharp as beak, chin tucking and swivel to turn, never still, chicken mother say, 'Look at you!' Face exploded in silent screaming of wide-open lips and teeth, pointy tongue, eyebrows jumped into chicken forehead. Bony claws of chicken mother, gripping each this agent's hands, mother lifts to spread arms too high on top this agent head."

"Host brother only pig dog, cradled on both hands, apparatus of black plastic with pig dog dancing thumbs making buttons beep. ... On pig dog breath, the stink of Ritalin. The pollution stench of model airplane adhesive and frequent masturbations. Underneath ... reek of secret blood, latex rubber, and fear sweat."

"For official record, only host sister look rewarding opponent. Host sister, stealth cat. Cat of night, silent but eyeing all happen."
While we do learn, from his corporate ID badge, that the patriarch's name is Donald Cedar, Pygmy refers to them from here on only as "breathing cow father," "twitching chicken mother," "pig dog brother," and "cat sister."

I've read other books whose narrators are about as vile and contemptuous, and usually, I don't like them much. To some extent, I didn't really enjoy Pygmy either -- it's not that sort of a book -- but I did appreciate it. The plot itself (what is this cataclysmic Operation Havoc Pygmy and his fellow operatives are planning, and will they be successful?) is interesting enough, but what makes the book worth reading is Palahniuk's acerbic skewering of so many rituals of American culture, particularly those common to middle and high schools. As he describes a "student mating ritual located darkened sports arena of education facility,"
"During mating ritual cloaked dim interior arena atop floor of basketball wood, against din of music encourage premature random sexual reproduction, pig dog brother make finger straight to indicate females ranked along opposite wall. Across distance, give introduce. Assembled females of middle school, could be rowed for execution firing squad, eyeballed by youth males."
Pig dog brother then regales Pygmy with a long list of crude adolescent terms for breasts that's both thoroughly obnoxious and completely in line with what I remember of middle school: "hooters ... knockers ... balloon bombs ... butter bags ... Rib cushions ... party pillows ... chesticles ... Blouse bunnies ... fun bags ... lactoids ... speed bumps ... Milk makers ... devil dumplings ... flotation devices."

The silly, superficial, and hedonistic nature of U.S. culture seen through Pygmy's eyes is the book's central theme. Blinking chicken mother is obsessed with vibrators, to the extent that no other battery-powered applicance in the house is safe, and she comes to Thanksgiving dinner with one, er, secreted on her person. Following in her mother's footsteps, Cat sister's prize-winning science project is the Bliss 2.0, which she introduces as "the next generation in complete happiness." Pygmy, on the way home from a school function, muses that he "encounter frequent memorial honoring American battle warrior, great officer similar Lenin. Many vast mural depicting most savvy United States 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." And his translation of the "idiot nonsense [songs]" and "insane garbage lyrics" performed by the middle school's compulsory Junior Swing Choir had me in stitches (especially after the half-second pause it took me to translate each tune's title):
  • "precipitate remain pummel head of operative me. Complain how both feet too large size for sleeping mattress."
  • "past visited arid landscape aboard equine of no title"
  • "yearning for location on top arched spectrum of light wavelengths created by precipitate"
  • "dangle in side-to-side motion from distant solar body, next convey illuminations of lunar body to domicile contained in glass vessel"
  • "Stalk cereal corn grown height comparable eyeball of pachyderm."
Nowhere is Pygmy's contempt for U.S. culture clearer or funnier than in the Model U.N. chapter, where he sees through an outsider's eyes just how shallow and insulting is his hosts' understanding of world cultures and international relations.

This bright-sided, hypersexed picture of public education contrasts sharply with Pygmy's of his own upbringing, which is as extreme in its collectivism as the U.S. seems to be in its individualism. Two scenes in particular stand out here, though both were so over the top that what should have been chilling and gruesome just seemed overdone. In one, a teacher drowns and grinds up a lab rat to underscore the inevitability of death; in another, Pygmy and his classmates' progress in a parade is briefly interrupted when comrade Oleg is forced to kill his hysterical parents (who can't help leaping from the sidelines to embrace their long-lost son, thus interfering with the solemnity of the occasion).

Pygmy skewers the hypocrisy of American religion, too, though I had mixed feelings about how this was executed. On one hand, I loved Palahniuk's description of a contemporary Midwestern megachurch, and enjoyed Pygmy's possibly-deliberate mistranslation of Reverend Tony's title as "Devil Tony." On the other, for a book whose strength lies chiefly in making us see the familiar with new eyes, a lecherous minister seemed a little trite.

My other quibble with the book -- this feels almost obligatory, but I have to say it -- is that a significant chunk of the plot turns on Trevor falling in love with Pygmy after the aforementioned brutal rape. Yes, I know this is supposed to be over-the-top, satirical. Yes, I know scenarios where rape leads to love have a long literary history, even including one of my own favorite guilty pleasures (GWTW, natch) among them. I still didn't like it. Moreover, I thought the whole idea of Trevor's unrequited love was unnecessary; he could just as easily have shot up the Model U.N. for some other reason. Interjecting this ridiculous, almost-slapstick note into the story detracts from a piece I found far more intriguing: the money Pygmy stole from Trevor, mentioned throughout the book, as an unsavory metaphor for the roots of American wealth and power: "thick layer of paper bills smear stained blood, fecal, seed, sweat, stinking saliva, a fortune typical American cash money."

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