There are only ever a handful of writers who one can legitimately claim to be a ‘voice for their generation’, but one could make a strong argument that Chuck Palahniuk is a contender – particularly for men of a certain age. In his latest novel, Beautiful You, Palahniuk’s eye turns from male identity issues to the arena of female pleasure — or does it?
On the surface, Beautiful You follows the story of Penny Harrigan, a lowly associate of a law firm, who gets whisked away by powerful billionaire C. Linus Maxwell. Far from your usual girl-gets-mysterious billionaire storyline, Harrigan gets turned into a guinea pig for Maxwell’s incredibly potent line of sex toys, which ultimately end up doing some severe damage to society.
It’s a book that has been getting some severely mixed reviews; Palahniuk’s storytelling has always been confronting but, by and large, it seems that many people have missed the point: Beautiful You is a satire, and a vicious one at that, taking on self-help dogma, arousal addiction and the increasingly narrow versions of freedom and power our society promotes.
“History shows that my novels are never digested in a single reading,” Palahniuk says. “People who misinterpret them are skimming along the surface; what they come away with is proof of their own shallowness.”
“Anyone who expects this book to be sexy does miss the point,” he says. “I call it ‘Gonzo Erotica’ because the novel constantly forfeits sexual tension for a laugh. Whenever the reader might tremble on the verge of arousal, I intentionally use the wrong word or reference to resolve that response with humour.
“Nonetheless, countless people have told me the novel did give them hot pants. Go figure.”
Beautiful You introduces the topic of arousal addiction in a paragraph that glibly states that it had been a problem largely ignored by society because it generally only affected young men addicted to porn and video games. This throwaway line indicates the actual premise of the book.
“Bingo,” Palahniuk says. “My goal was to write a novel about a problem the general public isn’t ready to recognise and address. In The Stepford Wives Ira Levin gave us a symbol for the male backlash against feminism. In Beautiful You I wanted to present sex toys as a similar metaphor that would ease people into a conversation about arousal addiction caused by pornography, video games, sugary food, drugs, etcetera.
“All of my novels are about power. Most are about people reaching the full extent of a previous power: education, beauty, youth, obedience… and trying to transition to a new form of power. Penny has gotten what the culture tells her is important, but becoming a lawyer was never her own goal. She’s been trained to use her mind and ignore her body, but it’s in her body that her real power lies. Knowledge about her own body will allow her power over the bodies of others.”
Of course, aficionados know better than to expect that Palahniuk’s version of self-empowerment is going to be a good thing.
“My joke is that solipsism is the highest state of emotional life and spirituality. So much of the past three decades of self-esteem training and self-empowerment language is salted throughout Beautiful You for a point. We’re meant to recognize that Penny is lost to her own self-actualized devices. May we all avoid the same lonely fate.”