It seems so long ago, already, those few months when every news article had some strained reference to 50 Shades of Grey. The book that sold 100 million copies. The fastest selling paperback of all time. The behemoth that straddled publishing, cable ties in hand, being strict and a little bit naughty. Remember those heady days? When everyone you know had an opinion on 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels, and what they meant for society, and for the future of the book industry, and what they said about capitalism. Did you ever meet anyone who actually read them though? Like all of them? 100 million people bought it. Where were they all?
Well (and this is the secret of the success of 50 Shades of Grey isn’t it) the people who bought it weren’t normally book buyers. That isn’t an opinion, that is just maths. There aren’t 100 million people buying books every week. EL James found a formula that made her novel more than just another book. For better or worse she created a phenomenon. There was the sex (obviously, there was lots of that) but there was also the writing style, which mimicked perfectly the true-confessions articles that fill magazines like Closer and Reveal (those who have called EL James’ prose style poor may be underestimating her intentions), and, most importantly, and for whatever reason, people liked it. They told their friends, things started to snowball…
And we didn’t like it did we? Us. The readers. The writers. Why her and not us? Why her book and not ours? We can’t help ourselves. And let’s face it, we were right. There are better books than 50 Shades of Grey. Thousands and thousands of better books. Why was that one the one to sell 100 million copies?
And then most of us got over it.
Chuck Palahniuk did not get over it.
The decision to start a book with a rape scene is not one lightly made. The decision to start a book with a woman being raped in front of a courthouse full of men, none of whom help, most of whom watch, is not one many writers would be brave enough to attempt. The decision to write the scene in a jovial tone, not exactly playing for laughs but certainly with one eyebrow raised is, to be blunt, really fucking stupid unless you can back it up with the most powerful, sensitive, insightful novel ever written. You can’t, oh let’s say for example, write a parody of a Mills & Boon novel that is less self aware than the original.
Romance novels are the brunt of many a joke. They are belittled and berated. So many writers think, for a while, that they will write one to pay for the time to write a ‘proper’ novel. Until they try it of course. Until they find that romance novels don’t have a set formula and their readers do expect a certain level of quality. Okay, so you don’t need to be a Colm Tóibín or a John Banville to write a romance novel. The prose doesn’t have to be that good. It does have to flow though, and you do have to be able to create characters that the reader cares for. You also need to understand a little about female sexuality and desire.
Chuck Palahniuk is not a misogynist, so let’s be kind and say that Beautiful You is a massive miscalculation of intent. I think he intended it to be comparable to works like Terry Southern’s Candy, Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata and indeed his own Fight Club, and Choke. He wanted to use sex and sexuality as a tool for a critique of society. But the thing I was most reminded of while reading Beautiful You was Peter Kay’s disastrous two part comedy, Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice. Clumsy, badly executed, scattershot, nasty satire aimed at all the wrong targets.
Satire can swiftly metamorphosise to spite. What was intended as cutting and witty becomes little more than pointing and sneering. Palahniuk cannot disguise his hostility toward the readers of romance fiction any more than Peter Kay could hide his new-found abhorrence of the working class that helped cement his success. If you haven’t read any romance novels you might read Beautiful You as a dissection of the form, but if you have, and you know that the genre is far more self-aware than it is given credit for, then the point of Palahniuk’s tirade becomes nebulous. Who is Palahniuk’s ire reserved for? Romance fiction or its readers. He seems to hate both. And that puts him in dangerous territory.
Our protagonist, Penny Harrigan, is overweight and under-confident. She is Palahniuk’s Everyreader. She is almost permanently in a state of being assaulted or seduced. Flashbacks of her early life are almost entirely confined to the times she was nearly raped. She is swept off her feet by a glamorous millionaire, C Linus Maxwell, or Climax Well (I shit you not) but he turns out to be using her as a test subject for a sex toy. (because,Palahniuk implies, you know, why would a successful man look at an overweight woman outside of fiction). This sex toy will be so great that all women will use it, permanently, and will never leave their bedrooms again (and Christ alone knows what Palahniuk thinks he is saying here). I feel dirtied just describing this novel. The distaste, the disgust of it, is overwhelming, sickening. A warped, disturbingly barbed version of titillation is omniscient. The difference between this and Palahniuk’s earlier work is the difference between late and early Eminem – the sense of humour has been replaced by a postulating rage at nothing and everything. This is effect over intent.
Palahniuk was, at his best, our Aesop. Fight Club is a superb parable. But the danger of parable is that characters are, necessarily, closer to caricature than they might normally be, and what you can do with them becomes limited. Rape and caricature are a dangerous mix – authorial intention is too easily mistaken or misread. My reading probably is a misreading, but the material is at least as much at fault as I am.
There will be many who revel in Beautiful You, who will find the satire powerful and edgy and clever. I found it an incredibly uncomfortable read. Perhaps that is the intention. But this wasn’t the discomfort of facing your own prejudices. It was the discomfort of seeing them in people you love. At times, reading Beautiful You is like being in the pub with a friend you have known for years who, after one too many, tells a rape joke. You just think, God, Chuck, no, not you.
Any Cop?: The novel will have its defenders I am sure, but for me this is a massive balls-up. A spiteful book, bullying rather than satirical, a patchwork of vitriol and bile.