Before discussing Palahniuk's ninth novel, "Snuff," it's important to note that while the themes and style of his books are always interesting, sometimes brilliant, sometimes inane and always rightfully controversial, his work is so unendingly gross and explicit that gentle, easily offended souls should be forewarned.
That said, "Snuff" is a spare and effective one-act play; a refreshingly simple tale told start to finish by a writer who often piles on the mind games and reverse chronologies. "Snuff" is not only a comment on the utter unsexiness of the porn industry; it also manages to imply that any culture that produces such an unappealing industry must also be awash in unsexy, mechanical and pointless copulation.
"Snuff" finds aging porn star Cassie Wright choosing to exit her profession by starring in a movie in which she performs sex acts with 600 men consecutively. Her aim is to set the record while setting the bar so high (sort of like Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game) that her legacy will be sealed. Almost the entirety of "Snuff" takes place in the waiting area outside of the soundstage where the 600 men are lined up, cattle-style, with their numbers Magic-Markered onto their arms. Cassie's assistant, Sheila, appears periodically to call three numbers at a time to come through the door to perform. The story is told in the shifting points of view of Sheila, Mr. 72, Mr. 137 and, the caboose, Mr. 600.
At first it seems the three are random numbers, but soon we learn they have deep connections to one another and the day's events. Mr. 72 believes himself to be one of the mythical "porn babies" conceived by Cassie while working; Mr. 137 is a disgraced TV star with nothing to lose and something to prove; and Mr. 600 is the male version of Cassie, an aging porn stud looking for a momentous exit to a storied career.
As usual, Palahniuk's uncomfortably real humans are mercilessly satired. One of the few passages that are printable here concerns the junk food laid out for the waiting performers -- some popping Viagra, some absent-mindedly shaving stray body hair, most dyed brown with fake tan lotion -- to sustain themselves: "Six hundred of us waiting in one room, we're breathing the same air for the third or fourth time. Almost no oxygen left, just the sweet stink of hair spray. Stetson cologne. Old Spice. Polo. The sour smoke of marijuana from little one-hitter pipes. Dudes stand at the buffet, scarfing down the candy smell of powdered doughnuts, chili-cheese nachos, peanut butter. Dudes swallowing and farting at the same time. Belching up gas bubbles of black coffee from their guts. Breathing out through wads of Juicy Fruit gum. Chewed mouthfuls of pink bubble gum or buttered popcorn."
The streamlined structure of "Snuff" allows for Palahniuk to concentrate on his trademark eye for the absurd and also to deftly shift back and forth between morality tale and satire. Even the premise is refreshingly simple: The concept of the novel is so utterly obscene that Palahniuk needn't invent outrageous events in order to wallow within his own profane comfort zone. But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of "Snuff" is how Palahniuk, after moving toward melodrama to address whether Cassie can physically survive such an undertaking, abruptly pulls out the rug for an ending that reminds us why he is the reigning king of satire.
Former Minnesotan Cherie Parker works at Idle Time Books in Washington, D.C. She blogs at thelitlife.com.