Over the last few years Chuck Palahniuk has revelled in the sordid, the grotesque, and the downright dirty like a particularly literate pig in shit, and for many readers his decision to set a novel within the pornography industry must have seemed like a marriage made in Heaven, or at least the more carnal parts of Hell. He seemed to have reached his high (or low) point with the short story ‘Guts’, which also made a gruesome appearance at the start of his pseudo-horror novel Haunted, but Snuff threatened to eclipse even that snippet of filth when it came to bodily fluids, disgusting urban myths and the deviant imagination.
Unfortunately Snuff comes as something of a disappointment after all that expectation, a few muffled grunts in a dimly lit room when we were hoping for a glorious pop-shot. There’s still plenty to keep the Palahniuk fans happy, including a vast number of his trademark factual asides and fictionalised urban mythology, but somewhere in the mix the story goes missing. If you strip out the non-fiction snippets and deviations from the main narrative, you’re actually left with a story that could have been told in a handful of pages. Snuff would make a great short story, but as a novel it feels thin and drawn-out.
We should attempt at least a brief description of the book’s events, although it’s hard to summarise the minimal plot without revealing everything in one ill-judged full-frontal shot. Legendary porn actress Cassie Wright is intending to make history with a 600-man gang-bang, and the event is to be captured on film with the explicit intention of reviving her flagging career. The narrative flits between four characters in the waiting room, where the 600 prospective porn stars stand around in their jockey shorts awaiting their thirty seconds of fame: there’s Sheila, Cassie’s assistant and right-hand woman; Mr. 600, also known as Branch Bacardi, a veteran porn star; Mr. 137, also known as disgraced TV presenter Dan Banyan; and Mr. 72, a young unknown who claims to be Wright’s abandoned child.
As events unfold there are a few surprises thrown in, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Cassie Wright and Branch Bacardi, but these are largely secondary to the constant stream of anecdotes and factoids about the porn industry, Hollywood starlets, and the history of human sexuality in general. There are even parallels drawn to Valeria Messalina, the wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, but there’s no disguising the fact that most of Snuff exists as a vehicle for a potted history of the sex industry as seen through Palahniuk’s distorting eye, along with an entertaining list of fictional porn movie adaptations in the margins (Chitty Chitty Gang Bang is a personal favourite).
As such Snuff is entertaining enough, but on the strength of Palahniuk’s other work you’d have to say that he could do better. The fragmentary narrative device doesn’t always work, especially when the characters’ voices all start to bleed into one, and as the plot races along to its premature conclusion you can’t help wondering if you’ve missed something along the way. While Fight Club and Survivor treated us to a wonderfully skewed version of the world, driven by a sense of anger and injustice, Snuff often feels like nothing more than a collection of dirty schoolboy stories.
Of course, Chuck Palahniuk is such a master of the English language that he manages to make the most sordid sex act or human degradation resonate with a warped minimalist poetry, but it’s not quite enough to hide the hollowness at Snuff‘s core. Even at his worst Palahniuk is still more interesting than the vast majority of contemporary novelists, but Snuff falls a long way short of the pornographic masterwork that we’d all hoped for. Like every porn movie ever made, this is a novel that eschews plot in favour of titillation and plenty of naked flesh – and ultimately it pays the price.