Monday, October 17, 2011


By Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk reminds me of Lou Reed. I'll get to that toward the end of this entry but I wanted to put that out there right away as sort of a teaser, an enticement of what might be to come. But this entry is a little difficult to unpack, so allow me to take it slowly. I'll get there, but first, let's talk about Engrish...

Living in Asia offers local English speakers (both Grammar-Nazis and otherwise) a wonderful opportunity to witness the ongoing linguistic farce that is "English in Asia." We are able to revel daily in absurd linguistic usage, nonsensical syntax, obtuse grammatical structures and just plain gibberish. We are literally surrounded by what is colloquially known as "Engrish," in Japan or "Chinglish" in Taiwan. Perhaps you've heard of this phenomenon.

If you haven't, allow me to explain. In Asia, there is an overwhelming eagerness to use English language (English somehow denotes a product, business, event, landmark, etc... as international and therefore gains a certain amount of import amongst locals though doing next-to-nothing to attract actual English speakers). Therefore, in order to capitalize from it's reputation as an international language, English is splashed across everything. But what it actually says never seems to be of much significance.

I could document thousands of examples of bad English usage in Taiwan (for instance) but I will suffice with just the one to prove my point. This on a sign:

No Occupation While Stabilizing

I have no idea what they intended to say. Examples such as this are hilarious and garner furrowed brows and giggles from me and my wife as we try to discern exactly what it was they were trying to convey. It's as if they simply ran the Chinese through Google Translate and assumed that it works flawlessly. They spelled all the words right, at least.

Anyway, single sentences are amusing, but longer translations (such as museum displays, landmark explanations, park rules and regulations, pamphlets etc...) can get tiresome. Trying to read broken English over an extended period of time is not only difficult but also frustrating. When I encounter large swaths of bad English I rarely get through a few lines before developing a headache and giving up. Nobody wants to read reams of bad English. It's not worth the effort

Did you hear that, Chuck Palahniuk?

Pygmy is Chuck Palahniuk's 10th novel. I had read two of his novels (Fight Club and Choke) previous to Pygmy, so I can vouch for Palahniuk's ability as a writer.

Pygmy is told from the perspective of a 13-year old operative (Operative 67, aka Pygmy) from a fictional nation that seems to be an amalgam of North Korea, China, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, except perhaps more brutal. He is sent as an exchange student to mid-Western America to complete some sort of political sabotage known as Operation Havoc. Each chapter is a single dispatch from the Operative presumably back to his homeland via methods unknown. Pygmy chronicles the operative's life in small town America and his barely concealed scorn for the American way of life (along with much violence... after all, this is Chuck Palahniuk). Despite this book being touted as a comedy, hilarity does not ensue.

What does ensue is 241 pages of sheer, unadulterated literary torture. Since Pygmy's native tongue is not English, Palahniuk thought it would be hysterical to write the entire book in broken English. An entire book of headache-inducing sentence structures, inappropriate word choices and frustrating grammar patterns. If Pygmy's English got progressively better as the novel wore on, this gimmick would have been mildly excusable, but it didn't. Not even a little. Despite being one of the brightest students in his country's school curriculum, Pygmy seems to have zero ability to pick up English once immersed.

Not that he couldn't. He has a vast vocabulary and at one point in the novel he, along with the other exchange operatives, excel at a school spelling bee, spelling such abstruse words as pheochromocytoma and oocephalus. One would infer from such an intellect that picking up on the subtleties of English grammar would be a breeze. Not so.

And it's not like this gimmick couldn't have been done well. If I had an accent to play with in my head such as Russian or Highland Scottish or Bantu, perhaps I would have been able to wrap my head around this gimmicky bit of writing, but alas when you create a fictitious nation, a fictitious accent is difficult to image. I'm left with straight-ahead brutalized English. I simply refuse to delve farther into this book simply because I don't want to translate this inanity into Standard Written English. What's the point? You won't read it.

Which brings me back to why Chuck Palahniuk reminds me of Lou Reed.

Back in the early 1970s Lou Reed recorded an album called Transformer. It is one of the most influential pop records of that decade. You might remember his song "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" from that album, although the entire work is worth a listen. Transformer was the album that launched Lou Reed's solo career post-Velvet Underground and placed him in the envious position of rock god.

Which, of course was exactly what Lou Reed didn't want to be. Lou Reed is, was, and will always be an artist first, celebrity never. The fame that Transformer brought him was neither sought after nor desired. Reed actively disliked all the attention he received following Transformer.

Although this story has never been confirmed or disconfirmed, rumor has it that his next album, Metal Machine Music, was released specifically to scare his peripheral fans away so that he could quit being a rock celebrity and get on with making his own brand of music. Reed allegedly recorded the album to drive fans away. One thing is for certain, Metal Machine Music is perhaps the worse album ever made and reduced Lou Reed to a laughingstock.

I get the impression that this is exactly the same strategy being implemented by Palahniuk with Pygmy. Palahniuk's previous work has rendered him a colossal reputation in the literary world. He is (along with Neil Gaiman and Tom Robbins) the closest thing to rock stars that exist in the literary world. Perhaps a certain amount of Harper Lee is extant within Palahniuk. so much so that he felt compelled to write this drivel in order to drive off his peripheral fans.

At least I hope that's why he wrote this. The alternative, that he wrote this in earnest and without irony, is far more disconcerting.


Man of la Book said...

I really liked the premise of the book and I do like Chuck Palahniuk's work but I think I'll pass due to the broken English. I get enough of that in published books :) (OK, not that many).

Erin said...

I really like how you tied in both "Engrish" and Lou Reed -- well done! (I love grammar goofs of all sorts, so I am quite familiar with the former, though a bit less so with the latter.) I have never read anything by Palahniuk, but I suspect if I ever do I'll start with Fight Club, just because it seems to be one a lot of people like. The treatment of language in Pygmy sounds like it would drive me nuts, so it's probably not the best place to start!

Sharon Henning said...

This is a fantastic review! I read the whole review with interest (without skimming about half way through which is more the norm for me)
I don't know Palahniuk but maybe he just got a little full of himself or was under pressure to write another book and tried to do a "concept" piece, who knows?

Ryan said...

Thanks for the comments. I highly recommend giving this book a pass. I like the idea that he was under pressure from an editor, perhaps, but still.... unreadable.

Kris said...

New follower from book blogs. I like honest reviews :)
Look forward to reading more.


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