Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on April 15, 2012
Palahniuk is, in many ways, the great author to study if you want to write first-person narrative. Having already read Survivor, Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, and Choke (Palahniuk's first four novels), I was excited to see more of Palaniuk's work -- and especially how Palahniuk would wrangle the many first-person voices who tell this oral biography.
It would be inaccurate to say I didn't enjoy the book. Palahniuk is a talented writer who works incredibly well on the sentence level of writing. I found myself laughing out loud more than once during the story. That said, the book is flawed. Here are my concerns:
1) The sheer number of 1st-person speakers used becomes confusing within a few short chapters. While we can remember five or six main characters, that leaves a couple dozen lying on the periphery of our memory -- which makes it easy to feel lost and to stop caring about the narrative voice.
2) Palahniuk's work on creating a distinct voice for his different narrators comes up short. The use of tropes of voice (that one character speaks mostly in question, that one uses scientific language, that one is visually focused, that one is audio focused, etc.) becomes transparent. Since the narrative voice is never really develop, the reliance on these tropes makes the voice and personality of each narrator feel thin.
3) If you've read Fight Club and Choke, you've already read this book. The themes are very similar. The voice brings nothing new. The story, while interesting, fails to leave a real mark.
4) Bizarre sexual content (which in this book includes deformed lovers and incense) starts to feel like a crutch, more present as shock value than as any notable part of story or theme.
5) The plot, and especially its twists, try to do too much. I'll touch on this in greater detail in the next paragraph.
SPOILERS: Ironically, the story's greatest strength becomes its downfall in the final quarter of the book. We start out with a rural world that we can relate to. This world then develops gradually toward a dystopian reality that bears striking resemblance to our own world (especially in regards to our cultural escapism). At first, our protagonist seems like an apt anti-hero: He gets involved in directed self-destruction (very Fight Club-ian) and then starts to spread rabies to the entire population. It is gradually revealed that his position as "patient zero," infecting the population with rabies, is an attempt to disconnect people from a high-tech, multi-sensory form of television ("boosting") around which this dystopian society orbits. Rabies literally prevents "boosting." In this process, Palahniuk also touches on prejudice, counter-culture, self-destruction, and other themes common to his other work. Thematically tired? Yes. But enjoyable.
At this point in the story, I really enjoyed the plot and theme levels of the story. Then, in the final quarter, the book is about time travel. "No kidding," (as so many Palahniuk narrators so often say), the entire thing starts to be about becoming your own gradfather, having sex with thirteen-year-old versions of your ancestors, becoming super-human (and developing traits like super-human smell), and reaching Godhood by killing your own parents before they can conceive you. While some may enjoy this as being great for a "thinking person," we're not talking about established concepts of intrigue: we're talking about wild, unfounded theories that are fun to think about in passing. They don't effectively support a novel or its final plot twist. The believable dystopia disintegrates into this wild theoretical theory, leaving the final portions of the novel difficult to digest and ultimately unsatisfying.
Is it worth reading? If you want to see the oral biography style in action, with an awareness that this is not perfect execution, this is a fun example. If you love all of Palahniuk's other work and haven't found it to be overkilled redundancy just yet, then this is worth a read. If you're looking for something nuanced from Chuck's mighty pen, however, you may start to wonder if his inkwell has simply run dry. While this is a fun read, it is not brilliant. I strongly recommend turning to Choke, Fight Club, and Survivor -- what I view as his iconic works -- instead.