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The Manchurian Candidate meets South Park—Chuck Palahniuk’s finest novel since the generation-defining Fight Club.
“Begins here first account of operative me, agent number 67 on arrival Midwestern American airport greater _____ area. Flight _____. Date _____. Priority mission top success to complete. Code name: Operation Havoc.”
Thus speaks Pygmy, one of a handful of young adults from a totalitarian state sent to the United States, disguised as exchange students, to live with typical American families and blend in, all the while planning an unspecified act of massive terrorism. Palahniuk depicts Midwestern life through the eyes of this thoroughly indoctrinated little killer, who hates us with a passion, in this cunning double-edged satire of an American xenophobia that might, in fact, be completely justified. For Pygmy and his fellow operatives are cooking up something big, something truly awful, that will bring this big dumb country and its fat dumb inhabitants to their knees.
It’s a comedy. And a romance.
Pygmy is not one of Chuck Palahniuk’s great novels. He has several novels that I consider influential and/or worthy of wide readership like Fight Club, Survivor, and Choke. Pygmy is one only the diehard fans can love. Credit can be given because Palahniuk really tries to do something different, trying a disjointed narrative style, and even though the story is decent and some of the scenes are funny, the writing gets in the way. The entire novel as a whole is just painful to complete.
The story is about Pygmy, a foreign exchange student which is given this racially insensitive name by the character’s host family gives him when he comes to their midwestern town. Why does he come to this particular town and this particular family? Because he is part of a group of kid terrorists who are going to create a massive terrorist attack on the United States with the help of secrets they steal from the government job where the host family’s father works. Along the way, Pygmy has to navigate high school, bullies, and his love interest for the daughter of the host family.
The book was probably pretty fun to write, but it is not fun to read. The typical chapter is written in short sentences, with words mixed up and made up, names and jargon that are odd, quirky, or nonsense, and stories that are more frustrating to parse out than they are worth. Every “dispatch” also has pattern where the story starts, there is a quote from some famous, often times horrible, person, usually a leader or philosopher like Hitler, Mussolini, Karl Marx, etc. The story continues and then the quote returns to wrap up the action in the chapter, like the quotes are metaphors for the story. Pygmy is able to drop all of the quotes but then returns to the broken sentences of his dispatches to make the story. Over two hundred and fifty pages, this grows irritating. I can use some mental gymnastics to solve why the narrator is so poor at writing the story when he is also able to quote so many famous people (and spell every word during a spelling bee), and how the education that he has should be enough to be able to follow basic sentence structure, but it is not worth it. Having stuck it out to the end, after such a long journey to get there, I can say that everything about this book is disappointing. The idea is fun, but the execution does not work for me.