January 14, 2011

Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk (2010)

Chuck Palahniuk is a terrifyingly talented author. He has a remarkable gift for odd turns of phrase, describing people, events and places in ways that the reader would never have previously imagined, but which fit perfectly. He’s laugh-out-loud funny when he needs to be, and frighteningly confronting when he wants to be. His first published novel, Fight Club, was a well-deserved cult hit and spawned an even better motion picture from screenwriter Jim Uhls and director David Fincher. Follow-up novels such as Survivor, Choke and Invisible Monsters continued to cement his reputation as one of America’s best novelists. He’s an author with whom you can make some easy comparisons – the deceptive simplicity of Stephen King, the highly evocative phrasing of Bret Easton Ellis – but also one who stands up as a very original writer. Nobody else writes exactly like Palahniuk. Ten novels into his career and he has effectively created his own niche genre.
Tell-All, published in 2010, is Palahniuk’s latest novel. Like several of his recent books it’s comparatively short, running for roughly 180 pages or so in a B-format paperback. It is a satirical pastiche, tracking the attempted career comeback of an aging movie star through the eyes of her long-standing (and long-suffering) personal assistant. When a young man arrives with an eye to woo and exploit the movie star, it’s up to her assistant to see him off and protect her employer – whom the manipulative assistant clearly sees as her own life’s work.
It’s saddening when you’re a die-hard fan of an author, and that author disappoints you. Tell-All is probably Palahniuk’s least successful work, creatively speaking. It’s not a lazy book, although several of his narrative and prose techniques feel like they are running a little thin. It is easy to recognize the intention of the work, why he chooses to write particularly things in a particular style. One technique that is very successful is the film’s constant name-dropping of actors, producers, directors, famous restaurants and luxury brand names. All of them are highlighted throughout the book in bold text, showing off how ridiculous it all is and how heavily Hollywood relies on networks and social hierarchies to determine status. In a longer book the technique would probably wear thin, but at 180 pages it’s extraordinarily effective.
Palahniuk also employs a lot of screenplay and film-making techniques. Our narrator describes how scenes would look, actively signposts flashbacks and describes how and why the camera would move around each scene to pinpoint important moments of foreshadowing or narrative. This technique feels a little over-used, and combined with Palahniuk’s trademark inventive descriptions weighs the novel down like a pudding with too many ingredients. The narrative is a bit shaky as well, spending a full half of the book on exposition before the plot – which is comparatively slight – finally begins to move along.
If read by someone completely new to Chuck Palahniuk Tell-All might be able to impress, since the best elements of the author’s writing are still in strong evidence. If read by someone who is a fan of his work, as I am, those elements aren’t enough to escape the book’s shortfalls. Palahniuk has written far, far better books than this before, and I’m sure he will again. Tell-All is a significant disappointment.

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