Wednesday, May 26, 2010

[Book Review] Tell-All

Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk, stinks.

Well, my copy does, anyway. I bought it as a preorder before Palahniuk's first stop on his book tour. When I got it home after the signing event, I noticed that it smelled like old women, but it wasn't until I actually opened it and started reading it that I realized just how potent the stink was. Apparently, Palahniuk hosed down all the preorders with Chanel No. 5 before handing them out, a move that's cute in its intent and annoying in its consequences. That phrase mostly sums up the novel, neatly enough.

Tell-All is narrated by Hazie Coogan, personal life assistant to Katherine Kenton, an obvious stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor (striking violent eyes, massive fame for headlining scores of films, roster of husbands that reads like the end credits of a big-budget movie in terms of both star power and sheer volume). Or, well, Hazie isn't Kenton's personal assistant, as Hazie keeps reminding the reader throughout the book. What role she actually plays in Kenton's life is more nebulous than that, expressed in a series of metaphors that make it clear that Hazie thinks that she's the power behind the throne of Kenton's fame.

Whether or not she's doing a good job of surreptitiously managing that fame is open to question, though. Katherine's career has completely stalled out, and the only social contact she has is attending dinner parties thrown by similarly antiquated relics of a bygone age, punctuated by humiliating lifetime award presentations in which the presenters invariably attempt to use Katherine's fame to catapult themselves into the public eye.

The novel's plot, appropriately enough, follows the classic Hollywood three-act formula. The first act sets up the dysfunctional but stable domestic relationship between Hazie and Katherine, and the second act introduces a dynamic disequilibrium into that relationship in the form of Webster Carlton Westward III, a young suitor who thrusts himself into Katherine's life with questionable motives for so doing. The novel climaxes in the third act in a bloody finale that traces parallels between the ridiculous Broadway show that Katherine finds herself cast as the lead of and the collapse of the sort-of love triangle between the three principals.

The second act suffers heavily from playing out like an aggressively formulaic television show, which makes less than perfect sense, given the lack of any mention of Katherine being involved in television. Repetition has always been one of Palahniuk's favored stylistic tools, and it's one that he usually employs to slowly reveal secrets of the personal mysteries that are his other hallmark. The problem here is that the mysteries are entirely transparent and the repetition grates rather than charms.

That latter shift is largely due to the nature of Hazie's character. Unlike Palahniuk's other narrators, Hazie is relatively articulate, which has the adverse effect of denying Palahniuk the chance to use the deliberately misused diction and abused syntax that characterize his other novels. That cuts away the weird allure of his usual voice, leaving us with only the tiny cultural and personal insights that he normally interweaves into his lists of gruesome and weird factoids. All of those are quite thin on the ground here, though, meaning that there's not much meat on the bone.

There's also a twist towards the end of the book, but it reads as less than half-hearted in its execution and its impact. Not only should it be obvious to anyone paying the least bit of attention to Hazie's tics long before it's revealed, when the reveal arrives, it seems bored with itself. Hazie herself describes it as heavy-handed, something that only a hack would bother to include in the story, given its obviousness.

It's not all awful. Palahniuk still has a great talent for humor that shades from dark to black, and he gets particularly good comic mileage out of employing the atrociously florid language of romance novels in the self-aggrandizing book Webster Carlton Westward III writes. Unfortunately, those bits of genuine humor are mostly buried beneath stylistic excess that doesn't support even the 179 pages that this story is stretched out over.


  1. Based upon your review, I'm not certain that I should spend any time reading it. Had Mr. Palanhiuk not inscribed it himself,it might be one best read (and left) on a plane.

  2. Have you read anything else of his?

  3. I've sadly gotten to the point where I won't even buy Chuck's books anymore. Rant, Snuff and Pygmy all sit on my shelf less than half finished. I'm reading Fight Club for the third time, and there's a pace to the language in this book that just got lost in the present stage of Chuck's career. It's this pace, this break-neck, heart thumping in your chest, pace that sustains Chuck's better novels and makes the humor feel like part of the piece and not like random asides from an author who thinks he's too enlightened for his own readers. Without this pace, it becomes apparent that Chuck really is a mediocre storyteller at best. If your heart's not thumping or your mind's not challenged by a larger point, then what is the point?

  4. I do think that Palahniuk is going downhill as time goes on. I think he might just need a break to recharge, as he's been putting out work so steadily for so long that it feels as though his idea mill is out of grist at this point.

    I think Rant is totally underrated. It's also a book that you NEED to read through to the end to get what's going on. A lot of what seems like mistakes or at least missteps on the author's part turn out to be something very different. If you can't stand the prose style, it's maybe not worth your time to finish it, but if it was plot points or characterization that seemed off to you, I strongly recommend going back and rereading the whole thing to see if the revelations at the end improve the rest of it for you.

    I'm sad to hear badness about Pygmy. Haven't gotten to it yet myself, but the concept has so much potential...