The man who brought us Fight Club has written some odd books in his time, but Tell-All, despite its seemingly conventional set- up, could be one of the oddest. It's something of a departure for Chuck Palahniuk, who traditionally likes to wallow in the very worst detritus of the postmodern world, given that it's set in the past. Specifically, in the golden era of Hollywood.
The story is told by Hazie, the personal assistant, "surrogate spine" and all-round general dogsbody of Katherine Kenton, a faded movie star with drug and plastic surgery addictions – a kind of bitter and twisted cross between Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich, with a little splash of Judy Garland.
The story is told in typically rampaging Palahniuk prose, full of idiosyncratic quirks – this time a compulsive need to name-drop everyone and anyone. These name-drops are highlighted in bold in the text, and there are literally thousands of them, which is impressive, considering that the story stretches to just 179 pages. Another quirk is that the tale is arranged according to movie conventions, split into acts and scenes and peppered with film-script terminology, as if the whole of Katherine and Hazie's story follows some predetermined screenplay.
Which it does, in a way. Hazie is obsessively protective of her long-time boss, so when a young suitor by the name of Webster Carlton Westward III comes courting, and Miss Kathie is swept off her feet, Hazie is understandably jealous and defensive. When Hazie then discovers that Westward has already written a lurid kiss-and-tell memoir of his time with the ageing star, one in which he predicts her tragic and dramatic death, she brings her suspicions to her employer. As Miss Kathie and Hazie thwart Westward's apparent repeated attempts on her life, he is forced to re-draft his memoir, including ever-more ridiculous deadly scenarios for his paramour.
So far, so funny, but Tell-All is hamstrung by a few stylistic and structural problems. For a start, that name-dropping very quickly becomes tired. You get the point Palahniuk is trying to make, about the transient nature of celebrity and the fatuous way in which hangers-on attempt to absorb glamour from those further up the ladder, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow after the first few pages. And, unusually for Palahniuk, the gears of the story take far too long to start moving. The first act is deathly slow, all scene-setting and no action, and takes up more than the first half of the book – an offence which would get any Hollywood screenwriter chucked off a job pronto.
That's not to say that Tell-All is without any merit. There are a lot of laughs to be had, notably from some outlandish Broadway productions of the playwright Lillian Hellman, and the excruciating extracts we read of Westward's juicy and self-aggrandising memoir, gloriously entitled Love Slave.
As ever, Palahniuk is excellent at tying plot strands together, although there is a twist in the tail that this reviewer could see coming from miles away. As the true nature of the relationship between the trio is gradually revealed, the narrative also takes a surprisingly poignant turn.
Palahniuk deserves some credit for trying to write something different, and for creating a left-field tale that no one else could have come up with. But a tad more care over the execution would have gone a long way.