A brief synopsis of Beautiful You, the satirist Chuck Palahniuk’s fourteenth novel, may raise unfounded hopes that it’s a painfully funny (if somewhat prurient) romp through the intersections of sex and power. Penny Harrigan, a wholesome Midwestern girl striving and struggling in New York City, lucks into a date with the famous billionaire C. Linus Maxwell. He treats her to nights of sensational, methodically induced pleasure and tells her he’s testing a new line of sex toys, Beautiful You. Once his products hit the market, women throughout the developed world disappear from public life, and great cities are turned to wastelands in which “blazing dildos [shriek] across the sky.” Maxwell has planned all along to use these products for world domination, and Penny must fight back by harnessing the true power of her sexuality, with some help from a centuries-old mystic.
Palahniuk’s descriptions of men’s and women’s anatomy are at least as detailed—and certainly more vivid—than anything I encountered in sex ed. I won’t quote them here, but will say I was struck by how unflinchingly he details both heights of pleasure and the biology that produces them.
Throughout, Palahniuk attempts statements on the controlling power of pleasure, the ability of true love to overcome that power, and the uncertainties of feminism in the twenty-first century (Penny’s not sure if she truly wants the law career she’s pursuing, as what was a victory for women in the seventies has become unremarkable today). He also makes clear that he understands how irrational and brutal patriarchy can be. As Penny is being violated in a courtroom, the men around her look away, “as if mortified on Penny’s behalf. As if she ought to know better than to scream and bleed in public. As if this attack and her suffering were her own fault.”
The absurd plot and heavy themes of this novel promise comic—and feminist—gold. Unfortunately, they’re buried under clunky prose and contrived plotting. Despite its staleness, Palahniuk could have benefited from the maxim “show, don’t tell. ” He often states things that are already obvious to the reader, and describes characters or the societal havoc wrought by Beautiful You with a textbook writer’s broad, abstract terms rather than a novelist’s intimacy: “[T]he hard-won political progress of all women seemed to be eroding. Vanishing.”
Plot twists appear out of nowhere, or with blatant foreshadowing. The novel’s concluding scenes are so overloaded with revelations—about Penny’s parentage, about the power of her genitals, about Maxwell’s schemes—that they’re neither believable nor funny.
Believability isn’t an arbitrary standard imposed by a finicky reader. A good satirist maintains realism within an absurd setting, telling the reader not “look how crazy this is” but “here’s a world in which this isn’t so crazy. It’s not that different from ours.” Palahniuk has proven himself capable of doing so. In his more successful novel Survivor, he told the story of a cult-member-turned-TV personality in the process of hijacking an airliner. The hijacker was a ridiculous figure who’d lived a ridiculous life, but Palahniuk also got across his loneliness and bewilderment, and poor storytelling never blunted his message.
There’s great satire to be written about sex, power, and feminism, and Palahniuk may well write some. Beautiful You isn’t it.
–Available from Doubleday October 21st