Short Take: Chuck, you little scamp!
I’ve been a fan of Chuck Palahniuk for a long time. I can’t remember which book of his I read first, but I’ve read most of them. With each book, I got the sense that Palahniuk wanted to tell a good story, but more than that, he wanted to provoke a reaction. The story was a means to an end, the end being POW! Gotcha! I mean, look at Haunted. On the surface, it was a straight gross-out gorefest, but it was also a satire of pretentious “I must suffer to create greatness” art types. And in that respect, it was funny. (I still haven’t forgiven him for Guts though.)
What I’m trying to say is that most of Palahniuk’s books I’ve read have lived on two levels. There’s the first, obvious, “Hey, check out THIS craziness!”, and there’s a deeper theme. Usually the deeper part is submerged under some bizarre situation taken to its just-beyond-logical conclusion, making you think “oh, this could never happen”, but when you look closer, there’s this little kernel of the world as it actually is, and suddenly, it doesn’t seem so crazy. Look at Fight Club. A bunch of guys bare-knuckle fighting to blow off steam is nothing new. Having that evolve into an anarchist cult of bombers and arsonists is insane. But when you think of how far some guys will go to prove their manliness (shooting up schools, running their car into a group of women), it’s something a little deeper.
I had these ideas firmly in mind when I started reading Beautiful You. It’s a typical Palahniuk tale, starting off with the normal-ish: billionaire C. Linus Maxwell seduces plain-Jane Penny and spends a few months testing out his new line of Beautiful You sex toys for women with her very enthusiastic help. She has a great time, he ends the relationship but gives her a very generous trust fund to remember him by, and the products are released to the general public.
From there, the story becomes pure CP. There are warning signs that the toys may be more than just a fun occasional diversion, as virtually every woman in the world becomes addicted to them. There are riots over battery shortages, the elderly and young children are left to fend for themselves, desperate men roam the streets in search of hot meals and clean shirts.
But it’s not exactly a picnic for the women either. They are ignoring meals, hygiene, jobs, families, and virtually everything else in their lives. So it falls to Penny to stop Maxwell, and restore civilization.
I wanted to love Beautiful You. I read a few other reviews pointing to its misogyny, but I disregarded them. I mean, most of Palahniuk’s female characters are terrible, but so are most of his male characters. There was just no getting around it in this one though. Early on, when Penny is meditating on feminism and how much it sucks, I was actually fairly offended. Fiction usually doesn’t have that effect on me, but it REALLY annoys me when a man (like CP) feels the need to explain the failings of feminism. Strike One.
Then there’s alllllllllllll the sexual content. I mean, sure, a book about sex toys is going to have plenty of naughty content, but most of it wasn’t fun, or naughty, or even sexy at all. It all felt like it was written by an overheated teenage boy “Hey, watch what this chick will put in her you-know-what!” I know, it’s just Chuck going for the reaction, but it got old after a while.
In fact, I just realized what it reminded me of. Most of the plot of Beautiful You revolves around women who are being controlled via sexual arousal. Didn’t Dirk Diggler do the same thing in one of the movies in Boogie Nights? That’s it. Chuck Palahniuk has become Dirk Diggler.
There may have been more to it. It seemed like there was a lot of intended subtext and some more interesting themes, like our consumer-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture, but in the end, it felt like Chuck regressed to a small child, streaking through the house to get a reaction from the adults.
And just as I would say to the naked kid, I feel like responding, “That’s nice dear. Go put your pants on.” Beautiful You was a resounding Meh.
The Nerd’s Rating: TWO HAPPY NEURONS