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The Ninja Reader

High-brow or downright pretentious, good PNR or sparkly vampires, I don't care about the premise so long as it entertains me.

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Bullying: The Social Destruction of Self
Laura Martocci
SPOILER ALERT!

Why do I get the feeling that this guy really hates women?

Beautiful You - Chuck Palahniuk

It's about the halfway point of the novel and the heroine, Penny, walks through New York - a city riddled with abandoned children and hapless men trying to find their missing wives. All women but her have succumbed to a strange addiction to sex toys and, as it will be revealed later, are being compelled to only buy the products of this one company. A couple of gay joggers whizz past Penny. One jokes that the girls must be having a lot of fun. The other says good riddance.

 

Up till this point, I had been fairly okay with "Beautiful You" - maybe not 100% on board, but not in any way that differs from usual black humor readings. But seeing the gay joggers' casual, jokey attitude to what looks like a dystopia happening around their ears, jarred me out of the narrative in a way that I wasn't quite sure I understood. So... if the world burns, it's only straight people's problem? And... what? Rich megalomaniacs won't touch gay people because they don't care? I mean... what? The only gay characters we meet in a novel about taking the world over by dildos and nanobots, and this is their contribution? Is the implication that only women use sex toys? Why? (Sigmund Freud, don't even think about it!) What about asexual people? What about sex workers? What about transsexual men and women? I get that this is a satire, but seeing as it starts with the rape of the main character in a courtroom, I wouldn't have expected it to be so... straight.

 

(It reminded me of this deconstruction of Lullaby, in which the reviewer wonders why Palahniuk needs to comment on where a woman shaves or not and using a choice like that as shorthand for her flaws of character. I think now that I made it through an entire one of his novels that I have to add my discomfort to Erika's. Also, out of all the weird, disturbing things about this novel, I'm mostly surprised at this guy's fixation on women's pubic hair as indicator of their progressive attitudes. I mean, yeah, there are those who make a political statement with their look, but for every Activist there are at least 20 of us plain Janes who just can't be bothered.) 

 

But I digress.

 

"Beautiful You" starts off well enough (or as well enough as a Palahniuk novel can be) promising us a gender dystopia where all but one woman have disappeared, as well as a darkly satirical riff at "50 Shades of Gray." Our heroine, Penny, is a wannabe lawyer dissatisfied with what feminism has to offer, tired of living other people's dreams, and sort of plodding along as an "intern" at a big company. In true Cinderella fashion, she meets "the richest man in the world" and ends up being drafted as a guinea pig for a line of sex toys he's planning to release into the world very soon. But, the sex toys aren't just harmless vibrators, and threaten to bring about the end of the Industrialized World as we know it!

 

Or, you know... if the entire Industrialized World is made up of straight people who all enjoy sex and can't get enough of it. Oh, and how does our heroine save the day? With the help of an ancient shaman lady who teaches her all the ancient sexual techniques of humanity in a cave on Mount Everest, of course! (This is one of those novels where you can make a drinking game of cultural appropriation and racist stereotypes. Provided you also have 911 on speed dial.) 

 

The thing about satire, to quote JO, is that it can be biting and hateful, but it can also be done from a place of love. "Beautiful You" is satire, but it's more venom than honey, if that makes any sense to you. It makes good points about feminism being full of old dreams being forced on new women, and it makes what I understand are some good Palahniuk critiques about materialism and capitalism and making commodities of everything. And not all of the absurd moments are bad - I can honestly say, this is the one author whose books can feature a death by a flying flaming dildo without it being out of place.

 

At the same time, the premise hinges on a very specific worldview - that every woman in the Industrialized World has the budget and the inclination to buy a sex toy, and that the men are either pick up artists, entrepreneurs, or carefree gays, which seems... odd. And the final resolution... well, let's just say it's the second thing that left me scratching my head in this novel. (Supposedly, Penny is free both from the bounds of capitalism and has found her calling, and using Maxwell's evil technology for good, but as the wise white woman living on top of a mountain, far removed from everyday life and making decisions about the bodies of millions of women, she doesn't cut a very promising figure.)

 

Overall... well, I don't really want to make the analogy because I'm a little sick of the sex references. Time for something a little less taxing on the heart. Like Mad Max for example.