A large contingency of my peers have been singing the praises of Mr Chuck Palahniuk, proclaiming him to be one of the cleverest and most inventive novelists of a generation. If this is the case, Pygmy is certainly not a very good advertisement for his abilities.
Prior to reading Pygmy, the only Palahniuk novel I had read was Fight Club. An all right novel, but also one of the rare occasions where the film is better than the book it is based on. I decided to give Pygmy a go any way. It follows the titular exchange student from some unknown Communist country in Eastern Europe who is in the US for a few weeks. He is, however, actually a secret agent sent there by his government.
The premise of the novel sounds like a wacky thriller that could be very entertaining through its absurdity. The issue that scuttles the whole thing, however, is Palahniuk’s shoddy writing. Firstly, the whole novel, being told in the form of reports of our “hero”, is written in broken English, to mirror the fact that Pygmy is foreign. When done properly, the use of unconventional language can be very effective. Think of Portrait of a the Artists as a Young Man, where the language becomes gradually more complex to mirror the growth and maturity of Stephen Dedalus, or Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, where dialect is used to mirror the differences in social class and race in their respective societies. In Pygmy, however, what is clever for three or four chapters becomes irritating when you realise the entire novel is told is this way.
The second aspect of poor writing has to do with the characters. The characterisation in Fight Club was noticeably weak; you were left wishing that everyone would just lighten up a wee bit. In Pygmy, every single one of the American characters is exaggerated to a ridiculous degree. I understand how it is meant to be a satire on the darker aspects of American society. However, it is not particularly funny or amusing, and before long you start praying for the Communist terrorists to massacre everyone by the end.
What makes reading Pygmy so frustrating is that it could have been so much better, if the few good ideas that are there had been better executed. But it ends up being a satire that is not very funny, a thriller that is not very thrilling. If I were you, I would go and watch The Simpsons episode titled “The Crepes of Wrath”. It has a similar plot, except it is shorter, smarter and funnier than Pygmy.