Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff – A Review

At the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance.”

Sex is everywhere else to be found, but that’s not what people want. What people deeply desire is a spectacle of banality. This spectacle of banality is today’s true pornography and obscenity. It is the obscene spectacle of nullity (nullite), insignificance, and platitude.
Dust Breeding, Jean Baudrillard

I had read enough about Palahniuk’s ‘Snuff‘ to know it wasn’t a story I was going to actually like. I wanted to read it because I write erotic fiction and, from everything I had heard, this promised to be the very antithesis of it. Anti-erotica.  I’m not going to synopsize the story, because other reviewers have done that well. But, very simply, it is a story told in first person POV by four people involved in the making of a gang-bang porn movie. Cassie Wright, the aging porn queen featured in the film is not one of the narrating characters.

First, a little about the form. I’ve read other Palahniuk books and got the sense that some were padded to reach novel length. Snuff is representative of the natural size of many Palahniuk’s stories and benefited from its brevity as a novella.

Style-wise, Palahniuk himself has disdained the long lush descriptive writing of others, insisting that his readers don’t have the patience for “beautifully padded sentences” of writers like Amis.  As Sarah Churchwell of The Guardian, pointed out in her review, he does, however, seem to believe they have great patience for repetition.

This narrative device mirrors the sort of facile ‘recapping’ of plot common in both TV drama and reality shows, to mitigate the short attention span of the viewer and the damage done to the storytelling by commercial interruptions. I think it’s fair to say that it may be the author himself who doesn’t have the patience for the “beautifully padded sentences” and requires the constant “recaps”. Perhaps Palahniuk is just a man of his time.

Snuff reminded me of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash” in a number of ways. The narrative focuses on the minutiae of the concrete moment, the exploration of obsessions with celebrity but, most of all, in a choice of language deliberately crafted to inhibit titillation.

Where Ballard chose to describe his characters’ copulation in starkly medical terms, Palahniuk doggedly sticks to the industry-specific vocabulary of porn. Terminology like money-shot, fluffer, cowgirl, etc. Its stubborn ubiquity is meant to distance most readers and inure them from any emotional or erotic response to the sex acts.  A continual stream of fast-cut screen descriptions of the porn showing in the holding area where three of the narrators waiting prior to performance alienates and decontextualizes the sex, interrupting most readers’ lived experiences. My guess is that he was attempting to instill a kind of literary ‘porn creep, turning the acts into a litany of sterile, pseudo-empirical events.

But there is a danger in believing a reader can be controlled in this way. I don’t think Ballard foresaw that some of his readers would find the medical sterility of the sexual descriptions fetishistically erotic. Similarly, despite Palanhiuk’s clear understanding of the appeal of gang-bang porn, I’m unsure whether he took this into account. The jargon of the porn industry itself is, for some people, equally fetishitic. Certain types of porn users will find the language in the novel arousing in the same way they are aroused by the banal hyperbole of gonzo porn itself. In her article the novel for the New York Times Review of Books, Lucy Ellman remarks: “He has allowed the failings of the culture he criticizes to infect his own work.” I think this is an important point, but she assumes that this was unintentional. I’m not so convinced it was.

Another aspect of Snuff I found interesting were the mega listing of porn movie titles modified from classic cinema: “To Drill A Mockingbird,” “On Golden Blonde,” “Twat on a Hot Tin Roof.” A handful of these titles would have afforded the reader a chuckle, but 130 of them become a stylistic choice. Companion to this is the hundreds of pejorative terms which Sheila, the post-feminist assistant to Cassie Wright, comes up with to refer to males of any stripe.  A few would have elicited a laugh, but the plethora offered becomes a narrative tactic.

Snuff is a quintessentially post-modern work.  It revels in its own story world, and all four narratorial characters are terminally bound up in their own particular experience, like Lacanian victims who never got through the ‘mirror’ stage of development. But this can’t be a criticism of the writing. It’s a reflection of the onanistic egotism of a post-modern, consumerist world.

Some of his characters are better drawn than others. I believe Palahniuk got lazy with some of them: the aging gay porn actor, Mr. 137, who is desperate to resurrect his career by coming out of the closet as straight, is disappointingly written. Had he faithfully relied on stereotypes for each of the four narrators, it might have worked, but he doesn’t.  Both Mr. 72 and Sheila, the PA, are more layered.

Sheila, assistant to the porn queen, is the most interesting of all the characters because she, it turns out, is keeping her cards much closer to her chest. She evolves as educated and corrupt. Spewing post-feminist critical theory while pocketing bribes for a preferred spot in the fuck-a-thon, there is an eerie, almost Sapphic aura to the descriptions of how she attends to her employer’s more intimate pre-performance tasks. Like a handmaiden to a monstrously delusional Christian martyr, there is subtextual sadomasochism to this relationship. It is the only part of the novel that contains a nuance of eroticism, in contrast to the ironic and patently unerotic porn. Sheila’s continual use of slangy metaphors for both male porn actors and consumers acts as a clue to her fundamental psychopathy. It mirrors of the obsessive listing of brand names and products in Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho.”

There are hints of poignancy in the desperate craving for identity embodied in all the novel’s characters, but most especially in Mr. 72, a barely legal boy who is convinced he’s the porn-star’s illegitimate son. And, without giving away the story, this is where the secondary theme of motherhood and its attendant fantasies and cliches coalesce. Both Mr. 27 and Sheila’s narratives reek of the Oedipal.

For me, this is why the book is important and where it shines. Despite its flaws and its typically post-modern celebration of relativism, Palahniuk does poke, if only indirectly and unsatisfying, at the strange entanglement between identity and erotic experience. He does examine how the narcissistic pursuit of identity will always subvert any eroticism into a long, lonely and, ultimately meaningless bout of masturbation, but it’s not undertaken with the dedication the task deserves.

This is the main flaw I see in a lot of post-modern fiction that deals with contemporary sexual issues: the desire to appear jaded, unsentimental and transgressive eclipses the desire to engage thoroughly or genuinely with a compelling human dilemma.

I am reminded of Roland Barthes argument that the reintroduction of the sentimentality of love into sexuality would be the ultimate transgression.  (A lover’s discourse: fragments). In my view, that’s a place Mr. Palahniuk is not yet grown up enough to go.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation