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Book Review: “Beautiful You” by Chuck Palahniuk

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Folks, I think it wise to start by saying “This is a Chuck Palahniuk book. Okay? Expect the unexpected!” If you’ve read Chuck P. (and especially if you’re a fan of his writing) you know his stories are never just about the surface issues. I feel that his most recent novel “Beautiful You” (released October 21, 2014) will end up being stereotyped simply as sensationalist fiction falling back on man’s favorite of lowbrow topics: SEX. I think this book is going to get panned in some cases simply because it took an easily exploitable topic (modern/future-oriented sex) and made it into something disgusting, controversial and evil.

I read peer reviews of the book before and after reading it, and some people really thought it was trashy pulp fiction. Reviewers complained that it wasn’t up to Palahniuk’s standards and that, with this book, he has gone downhill from his earlier novels. (Since I have not read the Chuck P. canon yet, I cannot honestly agree or disagree with this assertion). But I HAVE read “Choke” and this book and I have to ask: “What is Palahniuk’s standards exactly?” He’s gross, he’s perverted, he’s edgy, he’s beyond words sometimes. I, for one, did not think “Beautiful You” was lowbrow or trashy or anything like that. Weird as hell, of course, but not shoddy workmanship. Surprisingly, “Beautiful You” made me think about real-life issues that, while they are relevant to today’s world and even tomorrow’s, have little to do with the more “boorish” qualities of human sexual behavior.

The book touched on so many different topics of consideration that I was overwhelmed with them, they just kept flying at me. In the beginning, while things are going smoothly for protagonist Penny Harrigan and her female peers, the novel comes off as a portrait of cool, almost-there feminism; while Penny isn’t exactly on par with the male higher-ups in her firm, she certainly sees herself climbing the ladder to get there. She starts out very determined, if not a little wavering in her abilities to achieve professionally. Things start to go a bit sour when she fortuitously (or not so fortuitously…?) meets C. Linus Maxwell; while the introduction seems heaven-sent, this fateful meeting knocks off the feminist tone rather quickly. Penny becomes a drooling schoolgirl, blinded with sudden passion for Maxwell’s ambition, money, and pale good looks. The Penny we started out with is not the Penny we see in the middle, but thankfully she comes back around in the end.

Capitalism and the future of marketing were concepts I was forced to think about as well. The entire novel was tinged with the hopeful idea that this monopoly enterprise called “Beautiful You” was going to save the world via it’s innovation. However, that’s not what happened. The world didn’t improve and the people buying the products didn’t evolve, they devolved and the world slowly shuts down because of this “innovation.” (I liken this to our very American belief that our lives are better on account of our explosive technology and buying power, when the evidence often says otherwise. In my mind, the erotic pleasure tools are like our iPhones and other tech-gadgets that we want/need because it’s the newest, coolest, MARKETABLE product). Like Penny and millions of others, we forget that consumerism is the driving force behind all these “innovations,” not a desire to make the world a better, more liveable place. Maxwell is in this to make money and rule the world, not provide pleasure to the masses. He knows that the power players play for their power, and he takes advantage of an entire gender this way. Penny and her fellow lady friends learn this lesson the hard way, and Maxwell almost gets away with erotic genocide.

Obsession is another big theme throughout. The whole idea of obsessive product placement and obsession in general pervades the novel, reminding us that we’re just a nation of followers, really, even as we strive for potentially more powerful roles. Chuck P. transfers obsessive love from a human object of affection to a battery-operated toy that can provide almost any kind of internal pleasure possible, (at the expense of the external). The women at the height of the BY addiction can’t feed or clothe themselves or take care of their families, but they can achieve orgasm. (It reminds me of the hilarity of someone not being able to afford groceries but they make time for that new pair of shoes.) These women become soulless slaves to an obsession they can’t (and won’t) understand. Why is it Penny’s responsibility to right all these wrongs? Oh yeah, because she’s overwhelmed with a guilt she feels Maxwell trapped her into. Guilt is another theme, explored on a much more individual level. I think she’s the only one who feels regret/guilt in this whole novel. (Baba, the sex witch, feels sadness that she helped educate Maxwell in this power-hungry way but ultimately she doesn’t seem to take on much of this guilt.)

I feel like this book takes a humorous myth-busting take on the so-called “elusive female orgasm,” as well. For so long, people have thought of some women as frigid, sexless people who don’t need physical release and pleasure nearly as much as their male counterparts. On the one hand, I feel that Chuck P. is trying to empower women by saying “You, too, ladies, can experience this kind of pleasure; pleasurable and fun sex is not just for men!” On the other hand, I think he’s trying to warn women that moderation is always the key, and in that case, men can benefit too! A sex-aholic is a sex-aholic, period!) If there’s anyone out there who still thinks women don’t need release the same way men do, they should remember that the species doesn’t continue in a sexless void of indifference. And people just aren’t that good at faking this stuff… (Penny wasn’t).

Like I said, this novel covers so many different topics that it was hard to keep up. I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting about but that will keep readers busy for a while, as they try to follow the character development and storyline itself. I do need to warn fellow readers that “Beautiful You” is not the Chuck P. book to start out with, but then I am at a loss as to which would be the best starting-point for this author. Really don’t know… I also feel that if anyone is easily grossed out by such things as a deceased witch’s dried-up old finger being used to provide sexual pleasure, you should stay away from this work, seriously. On a personal note, nothing grossed me out but I’m not easily disturbed by such things.

I feel like Chuck P. was trying to teach us all several lessons with this novel, the most prominent lesson not even being about sex, really. I walked away with a lot of thoughts and feelings, and I laughed some of them away. However, there’s one that stuck with me beyond the last page, and it is this: we’re too future-oriented to see how our present situation is driving us all insane. Please let me know what you think of this exciting, weird novel!

four stars copyFour stars because it wasn’t long enough; I could have kept going…but again, moderation is key with Palahniuk as well!

Till the next Chuck P.,
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