When it comes to reading tastes I am nothing if not eclectic. There are some books that just call to me as surely as others challenge me by ignoring all moral boundaries and ethics. So it was I handed over to the woman at the counter at Dymocks on the first full day of leave Chuck Palahniuk's latest drop in the ocean of collective seediness Snuff and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. The latter a novel that I can recommend to everyone including my grandmother and the former a novel I'm still not entirely sure I should be proud of owning.
Firstly, the cover of Palahniuk's latest offering makes it look exactly what it is - a novel about pornography, so I wouldn't recommend reading it in a doctor's waiting room or at the office during lunch break. It is about an ageing porn queen who's career has taken a turn for the worst who is convinced as one last high five to the industry to set a new record for the number of sex acts in a film - 600. It takes place in the green room on the set as the 600 guys are forced to wait naked for their turn and tells Cassie Wright's story through flashback. It's not for coy readers, that's for sure.
About one chapter in I was getting ready to put the novel down and call it a dead loss, but something about Palahniuk's dry wit made me stick with it. It has its moments, like Cassie's assistant Sheila's assesment of the porn industry and by extension, society:
"Want to drag the bottom for every loser, every pervert with issues around intimacy, men completely unable to reveal themselves and terrified of rejection - you want a cross section of those bottom feeders - just run a couple newspaper ads seeking male performers for a gang bang feature.
This crew of pud-pullers, these ham-whammers, it's they who killed the Sony Betamax. Decided VHS over Beta technology. Brought the expensive first generation of the Internet into their homes. Made the whole Web possible. It's their lonesome money, paid for the servers. Their online porn purchases generated the buying technology, all the firewall security that makes eBay and Amazon possible.
These lonely jerk jockeys, voting with their dicks, the decided HD versus Blu-ray for the world's dominant high definition technology.
"Early adopters," the consumer electronics industry calls them. With their pathological loneliness. Their inability to form an emotional bond.
These pud-pullers, these jerk offs, it's them leading the rest of us. It's what gets them off that decides what your million kids will want for Christmas next year."
But Sheila is wrong. These people aren't incapable of forming emotional bonds, in fact so much about the novel centres on just that. For example in the green room with the rest of the 600 is a young man who believes himself to be Cassies illegitimate son, given up for adoption at childbirth. Everyone in the green room is after something, but actually receives something else. Salvation or damnation, Palahniuk doesn't make clear, perhaps he doesn't believe in either.
I find a lot of modern American writers drop words. Why? Is there a shortage over there? Why does Sheila say "It's their lonesome money, paid for the servers"? Shouldn't there be a "that" in there? It makes me hear Sarah Connor in T2 in my head somehow - I don't know if that is significant or not in the context of a novel.
Aside from missing the odd word here and there Palahniuk also seems to have forgotten to make his point. I wasn't entirely sure what he was trying to say. He seemed to be going somewhere interesting with Cassie as a metaphor in the early chapters - keeping Cassie as an independent agent, making her own choices however ill advised they may appear. The whole mother/whore dichotomy was fantastically (and quite disturbingly) cross sectioned by having her supposed son involved in the film. But halfway through he decides to make Cassie (and, incidentally, the only other female character, Sheila) the victim, drugged and duped into the porn industry. Snore. For the supposed maverick of contemporary fiction, Chuck isn't breaking much new ground in his assumptions.
Was he just trying to say the industry makes a victim of everybody, as Mr 137 says to Cassie's supposed son?:
'"You and every man in here, no matter what you do up in that room, whether you tell Cassie Wright you love her, or you fuck her, or you do both - don't expect you'll ever get confirmed to sit on the Supreme Court."
Porn, he says, is a job you only take after you abandon all hope.'
The ending does not make it clear, it seems Palahniuk is ambivalent on his feelings about the cult of celebrity, the fraudulent perfection of stardom and the relationship between pornography, prostitution and human agency.
Human agency, in an interesting and hitherto unexpected coincidence, is also the major theme of Kingsolver's classic, The Poisonwood Bible. Could this novel be any better?
In 1959, Bapist preacher Nathan Price takes his wife and four young daughters to a small settlement in the Belgian Congo to convert the natives there to Christianity. They were supposed to stay 12 months, but as fate would have it their stay was caught up in war, ignorance, local politics and tore the family apart.
Told by Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and her four daughters the tale has a touch of To Kill a Mockingbird about it. The patriarch of the family rules with an iron fist, he is dogged by past shame and cowardice and his character is underscored by his assumption that he knows better than everyone else. His unwillingness to learn what he is doing wrong in his work in the village renders it both useless and unintentionally comical to those who live there.
The Price family, of course, is a parallel of the conflict in Africa on a micro-scale. Nathan is the coloniser of his wife and four children, under the guise of leading the way to those incapable of helping themselves. His eye is on the prize of the saved souls of Africa, at the expense of the souls of his children. However, as his rule becomes increasingly self-serving, misguided and dangerous the women must abandon him to save what is left of their own spirit. While it is happening, the worth of the people of the Congo was weighed by conqueror after conqueror and found insignificant in comparison to the diamonds and minerals therein.
In the novel, the personal is political and each character finds her or himself swept away on the tide of human history, decisions made calmly by a group of men in a room somewhere. Orleanna explains how it happened that her family came into such jeopardy:
"For women like me, it seems, it's not ours to take charge of beginnings and endings. Not the marriage proposal, the summit conquered, the first shot fired , nor the last one either - the treaty at Appomattox, the knife in the heart. Let men write those stories. I can't. I only know the middle ground where we live our lives. We whistle while Rome burns, or we scrub the floor depending. Don't dare presume there's shame in the lot of a woman who carries on. On the day a committee of men decided to murder the fledgling Congo, what do you suppose Mama Mwanza was doing? Was it different, the day after? Of course not. Was she a fool, then, or the backbone of a history? When a government comes crashing down, it crushes those who were living under its roof. People like Mama Mwanza never knew the house was there at all. Independence is a complex word in a foreign tongue. To resist occupation, whether you're a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically, when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line and it looks like rain."
The novel is charmingly and poetically told, but it is also heartbreaking. I confess a lump came to my throat as I read the last page. Still, I would recommend it to anyone.
To follow the religious theme, my next challenge, as part of holiday reading, is Nick Cave's novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. So far so good.