Chuck Palahniuk aims to offend — and usually succeeds.
The best-selling author of Fight Club keeps pushing onward and upward into the shock-lit stratosphere, taking things into forbidding territory where few other writers care to tread. His ninth novel may well be the most madventuresome yet, as he leaps headlong into the raunchy but lucrative world of porn.
Palahniuk’s Snuff is his raw, repetitive, dreary, satirical, smartass and anti-erotic sendup of the sex-video biz. Even a plot summary seems guaranteed to be off-putting in extremis: An aging porn queen seeks infamous immortality by being filmed while setting a world record for continuous sex encounters with 600 men! And this crazed humpathon may just lead to the death of Cassie Wright, for one reason (medical?) or another (murder?)!
Snuff unfolds in alternating chapters narrated by four participants in this monstrous gangbang. There is Sheila, a 20-something who proposed the stunt to Wright. She acts as talent wrangler/manager of the filming, complete with clipboard and stopwatch as guys are ushered in by random numbers for their encounters with the porn star lasting one minute, no more, no less, no matter what takes place on the mattress.
There is “Mr 72,” a onetime TV star whose career as Detective Dan Banyan went deep south after discovery of his participation in a gay-porn video. There is “Mr 137,” a sallow youth with a bouquet of flowers who is absolutely convinced Cassie is his long-lost birth mother. And there is “Mr 600,” aging porn lothario Branch Bacardi, who is to provide the video’s final shots.
Most of the “action” in Snuff takes place in the basement of a rented industrial space as guys in this ultimate steer call await their Cassie moments. The apparent randomness of their selection provides modest suspense, as does the fact that they have no glimpse of what is actually taking place under the bright filming lights. So they mill around in their underwear, snacking on chips and sometimes Viagra, while TV monitors provide continuous reruns of Cassie’s past videos.
Some of Palahniuk’s most creative work in Snuff comes in recounting Cassie’s long cinematic history. The writer does clever porn riffs on many immortal Hollywood films: Gropes of Wrath, Chitty Chitty Gang Bang, The Da Vinci Load, On Golden Blonde, Guess Who’s Coming at Dinner and Snow Falling on Peters.
The novel’s narrative also is sprinkled with dirty little secrets, true or not, of various Hollywood stars. This seamy underside beneath the Tinsel Town glamour is used to suggest there is scant difference between the various levels of celebrity, legit film stars vs porn stars — all are caught up in projecting a fantasy.
Tallulah Bankhead and Lauren Bacall were said to grind eggshells, mix them with water and drink the liquid, causing a roughened throat and a resulting sultry voice. Marilyn Monroe was said to have shortened the heel on one shoe in order to make her buns bump as she walked. Rita Hayworth was said to use strawberry Jell-O mix to dye her nipples bright pink.
Truth of the matter is: Some of these Hollywood trivia tidbits are more interesting than all the stagnant standing-around and primping by the waiting guy horde. None of the four narrators proves to have that engaging a voice or that compelling a backstory, so their brief alternating chapters come off as repetitive foreplay.