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Pygmy, By Chuck Palahniuk
It all gets a tad convoluted when 13-year-old Agent 67 infiltrates the US on a terrorist mission
Sunday 14 June 2009
This is Chuck Palahniuk's 10th novel since the appearance of his ground-breaking debut, Fight Club, 13 years ago, and while he tackles many of the same themes here as he does in his previous work, Pygmy sees him radically branching out stylistically, with only partial success. The story is told by Agent 67, a highly trained secret operative from an unnamed totalitarian regime. Agent 67 is only 13 years old, but was taken from his family at the age of four to be brainwashed and turned into a vicious fighting machine.
At the start of the novel, the agent arrives in America along with several fellow agents under the guise of children taking part in a student-exchange programme. Our diminutive anti-hero is given the nickname "Pygmy" by his dysfunctional Midwestern adoptive family, who have no idea that he's secretly part of Operation Havoc, a plot to inflict huge terrorist atrocities on American soil.
All of this is related in a difficult-to-read pidgin English, which gives much of the action a comedic feel. Palahniuk uses this set-up to have a big old satirical swipe at pretty much all aspects of American culture: the hypocrisy of religion (a church is referred to as a "religion propaganda distribution outlet"), the hollowness of consumerism, and so on. Some of this is broadly humorous, such as when Pygmy and the other foreign children take over a spelling bee and get every word correct, but much of the comedy is very much like shooting fish in a barrel. It's funny, but there are surely more worthy targets for satire than a school's Junior Swing Choir.
It goes without saying with Palahniuk that there's a lot of disturbing violence, sex and weirdness, and actually one of the more successful features of Pygmy is how these scenes, depicted in that same comedy narrative voice, jolt the reader out of complacency.
As early as page 17 we get a very violent anal-rape scene, while later a pupil starts shooting fellow students in a Columbine-style scenario, right in the middle of a Model United Nations event, to which everyone has come as a representative of a different country. Both times, the juxtaposition of narrative and action makes the events all the more shocking, but also subtly lends more depth to the stuff that follows.
But these moments aside, the stylistic oddities of Pygmy's voice begin to grate after a while. Palahniuk is clearly using this cod-foreign mess of words to highlight the innate xenophobia of and towards Americans, and to demonstrate the breakdown of communication between the States and the rest of the world, but that doesn't make it any easier to read.
It's full of inconsistencies, too. During a game of dodgeball, Pygmy doesn't know the words for "ball" or "whistle", but elsewhere he knows about, and comments on, Viagra, Xanax and Ritalin? And there are a few moments that descend into Yoda-speak, convoluted sentences arranged in a pointless jumble, which make you wish the author had tried a little bit harder.
With his unique combat skills, Pygmy foils the aforementioned school gunman and becomes an unlikely hero to the community; something he uses to his advantage to advance his plans for mass terrorism, which involve releasing deadly neurotoxins at a science fair being held in Washington.
The build-up to this climax is handled typically well by Palahniuk, who knows all about escalating action to a thrilling finale. More impressively, he starts to make us feel for Pygmy, and introduces a more human side to this previously impenetrable character, thanks to some well-judged flashback scenes from his oppressive training schedule back in his homeland.
In the end, though, Palahniuk seems to bottle out of his satirical romp through the sickening underbelly of American culture. Gradually, Pygmy comes to care for one member of his adoptive family in particular, which leads him to doubt his cause, and as he gradually gets infected by the things he sees around him, his conviction crumbles.
Without giving the end away, it feels like a bit of a cop-out, especially considering Palahniuk's unflinching attitude in previous novels. Ultimately, Pygmy feels a little light on content and themes. It's undoubtedly entertaining for the most part, and often pretty funny, but you get the feeling that the convoluted style is only really serving to obfuscate a lack of new ideas and subject matter.
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