Cassie Wright lies on a bed in front of a camera, waiting to have sex with 600 men. Consecutively. In one day. It is going to be sold as "the biggest gang-bang in history" – and Cassie wants it to end with her death, live on camera. Among the Viagra-guzzling men queuing excitedly at the door, there is one who first introduced her to porn – by drugging and raping her. Oh, and a boy who fervently believes he is the son she gave up for adoption 19 years ago. Welcome to Chuck Palahniuk's imagination.
Palahniuk (pronounced Paula-nik) writes wild amphetamine-novels. You swallow them and experience a strange and delirious high. Then you hit the last page, come down, and wonder who the hell you've been hugging.
A few years ago he revealed he is gay, so it might seem odd for him to write a book about straight pornography. But gay men can view the ballooning world of straight porn with a cool eye. Somebody has to. His premise is taken from a real event: a rape victim called Annabel Chong, who agreed to be "gang-banged" by 251 men; it is now regarded as a "porn classic". In all of human history, sexual images have never been more mainstream than in our wired-up, porn-again culture. The fact that a seemingly infinite number of women lie splayed only a click away is subtly changing men, and women, and sex. But how?
The story is told through three of the men queuing to be "The Dick That Killed Cassie Wright", and her female PA. They spray theories and facts, many of which turn out to be true, and which turn the book into a spurting discussion of porn.
Pornography is, Palahniuk hints, eternal and ineradicable. One character observes: "According to British anthropologist Catherine Blackledge, the human fetus [sic] begins to masturbate in the womb a month before birth... The nasty little thing starts jerking off in the third trimester and never, ever stops." According to another character, masturbation is one of the great engines of human history. Doing it, he explains, is how they "killed the Sony Betamax... Brought the expensive first generation of the Internet into their homes. Made the whole web possible. It's their lonesome money [that] paid for the servers."
In the early chapters, it seems like Cassie Wright is going to be a reincarnation of Nicola Six, the misogynist wet-dream at the centre of Martin Amis's London Fields. The porn queen wants to be "fucked to death", for reasons that gradually become clear. But Palahniuk goes where Amis couldn't: he peers into Cassie's mind. She has gone through the standard porn-and-prostitution training ground of rape, like most of the women in these "industries". In this novel, the star of "The Da Vinci Load" and "To Drill A Mockingbird" is no joke. Her desire to die is a moment of despair – and of a strange twisted hope, as you will see – not the orgasmic delirium of Nicola Six.
In order to be Queen of Pornutopia, Cassie has to transform herself into a dehumanised, deranged ideal. She looks like a perfect inflatable sex doll. Palahniuk's characters explain that "Adolf Hitler invented the blow-up sex doll." As a runner in the First World War, he was disgusted to see German soldiers having sex with prostitutes and spreading VD. "So he commissioned an inflatable doll that Nazi troops could take into battle... Hitler himself designed the dolls to have blonde hair and large breasts. The Allied firebombing of Dresden destroyed the factory before the dolls could go into wide distribution." This is partially true, and strangely fitting.
Another character explains that the first living, breathing sex-doll – Marilyn Monroe – had to bring herself close to death to fit the mould. Her lifetime of pneumonia and bronchitis was, the novel tells us, "most likely caused by her habit of burying herself in a bathtub of crushed ice before any appearance in film or public. Lying naked, drugged to escape the pain, buried in ice for hours, gave Monroe the stand-up tits and ass..." Palahniuk seems to be asking: does it tell us something about male sexuality that to be sexy, you have to be sick? Why has the pure market forces-whirr of a billion mouse-clicks created Frankenstein-beauties with blank eyes and abusive pasts pretending they love it?
In case I am now making the novel sound earnest, did I mention that Cassie's long-lost son is still queuing up to have sex with her? Like all Palahniuk's novels, Snuff is a Chernobyl of taboos, with incest and necrophilia sucked into this particular roaring implosion. This is how he faces the challenge of any writer wading into this subject: how do you write about porn without becoming porn? Writers as good as Terry Southern and Dennis Potter have floundered – but Palahniuk does it by being so super-depraved, so off-the-scale sick, that only a major-league pervert could get off on Snuff.
A queue of 600 men waiting to screw a Barbie-woman to death seems a bleak meta-phor for porn. If you knew getting your quick orgasm would harm a woman, would you carry on? In Palahniuk's vision, they do, with barely a disinterested shrug.
Cassie's "son", waiting in the queue, seems like another metaphor still. He's a "porn baby", conceived on camera, thrown away like a used condom. He discovered who his mother was when his adopted parents caught him masturbating over her image and howled "That's your birth-mother!" He carried around sex-toys modelled on her breast and vagina like "religious totems of the mother [he'll] spend the rest of [his life] trying to find." The first generation of porn babies, who have grown up with the most extreme porn on their bedroom screens, are now teenagers. Palahniuk forces us to peer at them, and to ask what this industry is doing to us, and its "performers".
Is Snuff brilliantly repulsive, or just repulsive? Sure, it's a thin plot, padded out with psychosis. Yes, all the characters sound the same. But Palahniuk investigates his novels for months before he begins to write, so they always have a journalistic reek of authenticity and immediacy: he is like Tom Wolfe on acid, and poppers, and speed. Think of it as The Bonfire of the Inanities. Once you have come down and mopped up the vomit, you will be glad you snorted this particular Snuff.
Chuck Palahniuk was born in Pasco, Washington, in 1962, and raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced. "It was TV until I was 18, drugs until I was 34," he said. Then he decided to write a book to entertain himself. His first published novel was Fight Club (1996), which was adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt. Snuff is his ninth novel.