Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Beautiful You’ is 240 Pages of What the Whaaat?

12 Nov

beautiful-you-cover-officialAs a woman and/or literate person, it’s difficult to finish Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel without wanting to throw it across a room. Without scoffing audibly while reading on a packed subway car. Without texting your friends context-less lines from the novel’s more ludicrous moments, linguistic gems like “blazing dildos shrieked across the sky” and “‘Hear me, my sister women! You must quit abusing your loins.'” As a woman and/or literate person, it’s difficult to read Beautiful You without having to willfully remind yourself that it’s all satire.

At Comic-Con, Palahniuk told an interviewer that Beautiful You—whose working title was “Fifty Shades of the Twilight Cave Bear Wears Prada”—is “kind of a mash-up of the most popular chick lit novels….comparable to something the Marquis de Sade would have written.” In an interview with Curious Animal, Palahniuk said he’s “hybridized the ultimate chick-lit novel” and wanted to pack BY “with as many tropes as possible, from the ‘almost-as-pretty’ best friend, who’s always a person of color, to the designer label fashions, the quest for a primitive mentor and, finally, a big wedding scene.”

Beautiful You has all of those chick lit tropes, as well as some, well, rarer ones, like the aforementioned flying dildos, and a 200-year-old sex mystic who lives at the top of Mount Everest. The novel—to the extent that I can summarize it without a) giving away spoilers or b) laughing—centers on Penny Harrigan, the kind of spineless female lead that does feel at home in books like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Devil Wears Prada. Penny is your typical errand girl at a high-profile law firm, and is on the hunt for meeting chairs one day when she stumbles across C. Linus Maxwell—quite literally; she falls through a doorway and lands at his feet. A billionaire with a reputation for courting soon-to-be powerful women (see: the first female president of the United States, a young queen, an Oscar-winning actress), Maxwell strikes up an affair with Penny, which consists primarily of his taking dutiful notes while giving her mind-blowing orgasms with an endless procession of proprietary sex toys. Penny soon discovers that she is the guinea pig for Maxwell’s forthcoming line of “feminine products”—named Beautiful You—and when said products are released, finds herself to be almost the only woman alive capable of resisting the compulsion to abandon her life for 24/7 “me time.” And I mean literally: Women stop leaving their bedrooms; husbands are ignored; children left motherless. Meanwhile, Maxwell’s intentions with respect to the Beautiful You empire are revealed to be far more sinister than previously imagined—this is a spoiler but I’m sorry I just can’t resist: NANOBOTS ARE INVOLVED.

The key to reading BY is to understand, from the first page, that it is parody. The plot, in which wildly popular sex toys bring about the complete erosion of “the hard-won political and social progress of all women,” is meant to be funny. The characters, who range from personality-deprived Penny to serpentine Maxwell to sex mystic Baba Gray-Beard (so named for her floor-length pubic hair), are meant to be funny. And the writing, which ranges from mildly odd (“his mom had been killed in the crash of a bus”) to outright cringe-worthy (“the trouser inseam led her eyes to a sizable bulge, like a huge fist wrapped in smooth, soft flannel”), is meant to be funny. In his Curious Animal interview, Palahniuk said “there’s nothing worse than badly written erotica,” before going on to gleefully describe BY as written “really poorly in over-the-top Barbara Cartland language.” It shows: Beautiful You is a testament to the notoriously sensational author’s hope that a novel can be so bad it’s good.

But there is a deeper message in BY, to the extent that one can absorb philosophical underpinnings alongside sentences like, “Soon she’d be a full-fledged sex witch, powerful enough to confront and expose Max’s nanobot conspiracy.” More than sex, BY is about consumerism, pleasure addiction, and with about as much nuance as Howard Stern, Palahniuk does manage to sincerely condemn our tendency to have relationships with things, and to let things displace people in the pursuit of happiness. Maxwell hasn’t created that dissonance; he merely uses Beautiful You products to exploit it.

Parts of BY are silly to the point of corny—like Baba Gray-Beard listing Ron Jeremy among her sex apprentices—and other parts seem lazily imagined at best (at one point, Penny tells Siri to “lease me a jet from JFK to Nepal, with one connection through Omaha,” as if Siri can deal with anything more complex than “What time is it in LA?” or “How tall is Ryan Gosling?”) But when the central concept of your novel is a world in which all women are suddenly and severely brainwashed via their vaginas, a few cornball moments barely resonate. Palahniuk fans/familiars will be equally nonplussed by his graphic language, near-violent depictions of sex and overall affinity for scenes that make normal people go, “What the fuuuck?”

Still, I think knowing Palahniuk’s intentions with respect to Beautiful You is important, not only because CP virgins might be blindsided by his general disregard for human decency, but because even Palahniuk fans are likely to feel a knee-jerk sense of outrage when it comes to the book’s misogyny. To be sure, BY is intended to mock the kind of cotton-candy fiction that undermines feminism in subtle yet pernicious ways. But as the novel progresses, Palahniuk seems to get more caught up in his post-sex-toy-apocalypse world—battery shortages! orgasm-obsessed lady vagrants! dildo fires!—than in delivering a message, or using satire to foster a clear critique. This is a novel that opens with a description of a rape; if basic shock value wasn’t Palahniuk’s number one goal, it certainly made the top three, and there seem few quicker ways to power up the outrage machine than to suggest that women are just one high-tech vibrator away from abandoning their dignity. (Or, more indirectly, that there’s some parity between these hypothetical society-shattering sex toys and the fact that real women sometimes get into stupid shit like Twilight. So we like sexy vampires, Chuck. It doesn’t mean we’re going to start beating each other half to death in line at the dildo store. Everyone knows you order dildos online.)

Perhaps most important, Beautiful You just isn’t well written, and the fact that it’s intentional sometimes seems genius, but more often doesn’t. At least when it’s E L James or Stephenie Meyer, we know they’re not squandering some unused talent, but Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, and Lullaby and Choke and even Haunted; it’s hard not to remember that he used to be better than this. Unlike 50 Shades or Devil Wears Prada or Twilights 1 through 57, BY’s shoddy writing isn’t offset by sexual tension or harmlessly banal romance, or anything more erotic than almost overwhelmingly anatomical descriptions of orgasms. Instead, the novel that emerges from CP’s thought experiment is part brutal, part silly—part Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, part Mars Attacks. Purposefully setting out to write a satirical sexist book about consumerism and pleasure addiction is one thing; purposefully setting out to poorly write a satirical sexist book about consumerism and pleasure addiction is another gambit entirely. In Beautiful You, Palahniuk unequivocally fails at writing a good book; the question is whether he succeeds at writing a bad one.

2papercutsTITLE: Beautiful You
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AUTHOR: Chuck Palahniuk
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PAGES: Kindled
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ALSO WROTE: Fight Club, Choke
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SORTA LIKE: 50 Shades meets
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FIRST LINE: “Even as Penny was attacked, the judge merely stared.”

7 Responses to “Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Beautiful You’ is 240 Pages of What the Whaaat?”

  1. Lunar Euphoria November 12, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

    Another great review!

    I lost interest in Palahniuk after reading Lullaby and Survivor.

  2. ettiegirl November 13, 2014 at 12:29 am #

    It’s interesting that an author would set out to write badly on a topic that does have some serious undertones; you would think that even though it’s a comedy he would want it written well so the message gets through properly…?

  3. lutheranliar November 17, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    Also, not to get all fem-political and all, but am I the only one who thinks parodying chic lit should be done by a woman…if at all?

  4. Jenna November 25, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

    Amen! Thanks for the thoughts!

  5. Gabriela November 26, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    I’m kinda disappointed with Chuck as well. Began reading Invisible Monster, but couldn’t keep it up… I don’t know, a lot of things seems just wrong. Kind of liked Damned thought, but again, didn’t finish it (I know, what is wrong with me). Btw, it’s my first time reading your blog, loove it! Congrats.

  6. MABarrett December 23, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    a) I bet Jennifer Weiner LOOOOVES this book. 😉 b) I’m an old school Chuck fan. I loved Fight Club, Lullaby, Haunted, et all, but his newer stuff is just so…forced. I do, however, really love his good friend, Chelsea Cain. Her newest book, ONE KICK, is a pretty great read and she seems to take herself a bit more seriously than Chucky does of late. c) Gabriela, I agree. He lost me on Invisible Monsters.

  7. Georgeta Popoiu January 9, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    Thank you !

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