Snuff, Chuck Pahlaniuk's full-frontal yarn, is the story of porn-queen Cassie Wright and three of the 600 men who are about to have sex with her on video tape.
I won't say much else about the plot, because even if I said a little bit it would ruin the story. The book is -- much like a porno, not that I've actually watched one -- a wax-paper-thin storyline full of wax-paper-thin characters superimposed on a lot of raw screwing. There are twists and turns, but they always seem a little half-assed. Or maybe what I mean is ersatz and cheap. Like a porno.
What's interesting about Snuff is that a drama is woven into the fabric of all this bullshit-- I won't say which drama, but I will say that we all know it. And as cheap as Snuff is, there's something oddly archetypal about it.
The animus of Samuel Beckett's work was the sense that a hero was someone, by virtue of being a human, who was doomed to failure. His characters' trials and tribulations consist of the everyday banality of human life (which they suffer bravely, and only barely); and their failures/triumphs in some way "infect" the tales of tragedy, pride, and victory that Beckett apes. And maybe I'm giving Pahlaniuk too much credit, but to me Snuff has "infected" human Eros in some small way. He has done so by discussing in excessive detail the mechanics of raw screwing, a process, it turns out, more complicated and unpleasant than any of us had ever imagined.
In a way, I might have liked Snuff, except I read Pahlaniuk's book on the porno industry just after reading a book about another industry that works in remarkably similar ways to remarkably dissimilar ends.
Bill Kittredge was the heir to the throne of the mighty MC Ranch, a million-acre machine used for fattening and killing cows, until he moved to Montana and began a life as a writer.? His memoir, The Next Rodeo, is in some ways an apologia for the 30-plus years he spent in agri-business.
For Kittredge, some two decades after throwing in the duster, the mechanization of his family's land was its death:
"We could not endure the boredom of our work, and we couldn't find anyone who cared enough to do it right. We baited the coyotes with 1080 (a poison), and rodents destroyed our alfalfa; we sprayed weeds and insects with 2-4-D Ethyl and Malathion, and Parathion for clover mite, and we shortened our own lives."
Pahlaniuk's take on plastic vagina manufacturing produced an oddly similar effect on me:
"They package and ship jiggling armies of pink plastic vaginas...Chinese slave labor, by hand, tweezing in pubic hairs or airbrushing different shades of red or pink or blue."
For both authors, mechanization is an act of violence. They aren't describing the logistics of making hamburgers or the production of Ali Boobie and the 40 D's, they are cataloging the bending of beautiful and natural things to the will of imperfect minds.
The important distinction between the two works is that The Next Rodeo is as much a document of the beauty lost. Kittredge watched with his own eyes the transformation of virgin land into something like a desert, one that bears the weird stink of manure and the eerie silence of things tamed:
"Maybe we should have known the world wasn't made for our purposes...and that Warner Valley wasn't there to have us come along to drain the swamps, and level the peat ground... We should have known the waterbirds would quit coming."
In his own way, I think Pahlaniuk is wondering, too:
"Imagine the person who could stay in the pubescent mind-set and devote his life to lifting weights and ejaculating on cue. To remain so aggressively retarded, arrested in such early-adolescent values, until he wakes up as a saggy, flabby, middle-aged train wreck."
I'm curious about that person, too. Who is he? What bit of himself has he lost or gained? Who is to blame? But in Snuff's 197 pages, I don't think Pahlaniuk ever tries very hard to answer these questions. Not really. That, or else he is trapped in something that better writers left on the ranch.