Doubleday: 198 pp., $24.95
Because many have been quick to write Chuck Palahniuk off as the literary equivalent of a shock jock, his books are often treated as pulp fiction, but in truth his fiction has always had a deep layer of social satire beneath the gore of it all. So while his fans may revel in his razor-sharp cynicism, a closer read reveals a writer who is unafraid to flay open our cultural DNA.
In "Snuff," Palahniuk fixes his jaundiced gaze on the porn industry, which has become such a regular facet of our celebrity-obsessed culture that stars like Jenna Jameson have had little trouble leaping from the back aisle of the video store to prime time on E!, while "stolen" homemade sex tapes of Hollywood B-listers are enough to base an entire career on.
Cassie Wright, the porn star at the center of "Snuff," is an aging sex queen who has lived through the sordid early years (her first blush in the industry was a drugged amateur shoot with her then-boyfriend Branch Bacardi), the boom of the later years (culminating in her own shampoo line: 100 Strokes) and now faces the dead end, perhaps literally: An attempt to break the world record for "serial fornication" by having sex with 600 men on camera -- one or more of whom may want to kill her.
Palahniuk tells "Snuff" from the point of view of three of the 600 -- Messrs. 72, 137 and 600, respectively -- as well as through the eyes of Sheila, the young woman who first came to Wright with the proposition and who is now the talent wrangler, producer and designated stopwatch enforcer for the shoot (one minute each; completion not required). The pitch? A historical porn flick about the first sex doll, starring Cassie as the doll. Seems the Nazis were hoping to be first to market with a life-like sex doll but plans were scuttled by larger issues of world domination.
"For my pitch," Sheila says, "I planned to develop a project based on that first sex doll. Work the Nazi angle. Work the history angle. Hammer together a story with genuine educational value." Her ulterior motive is larger, however: to give Cassie a final bow that might then set up the child she gave up for adoption a chance at a better life, since even Cassie is dubious that she'll live through the 600 men. "Whoever that baby grew into, Ms. Wright can give him a college trust fund, the down payment on a house, seed money for a business. Wherever that baby has ended up, he'll just be forced to love her."
But who is that child whose existence has reached mythical status? And who is the father? Mr. 72, holding a bouquet of flowers and eagerly waiting his turn, believes he is the child. He also believes he must save his mother, and perhaps redeem his tortured adoptive childhood, ruined after an awful sexual encounter with an actual Cassie Wright blow-up doll of his own, dressed in his adoptive mother's clothes, interrupted in rather inopportune fashion by said adoptive mother.
Not surprisingly, this incident has left an indelible mark on the boy, leaving him with certain sexual side effects. Still, he believes he's Cassie's long-lost child and must figure out some way of redeeming her, though his options seem a Freudian nightmare at best.
Mr. 600, Bacardi himself, a washed up porn actor so addled physically and mentally that he doesn't even recognize himself on the huge televisions mounted around the studio for the men awaiting their turn at Cassie, believes he is the father.
He believes that Cassie's first porno -- after he drugged her with Demerol and beta-ketamine -- produced their child, whose baby picture he keeps in a locket around his neck. But, of course, it might have been any of hundreds of men who've shared a scene, or 500, with Ms. Wright.
Certainly the father isn't Mr. 137, the former TV detective Dan Banyan, who lost everything after a long-lost same-sex gang-bang film resurfaced. Now a Viagra-popping has-been looking for a little career reinvigoration, he must also attempt to deal with his homosexuality, the abuse he received from his father and his own creeping mania prior to being called to Ms. Wright's bed.
All three men share their stories "Rashomon"-style, the result is often biting, often hilarious, often awful, but always compelling. Their lives are based on sex and lies and videotape with no end credits or dramatic score to usher out the bad parts.
It's ludicrous, of course, but that's the point: Palahniuk has crafted a world of sex devoid of titillation, where human suffering is shelved for a few moments when the cameras begin to roll, offering the viewers of Wright's films (like "Sperms of Endearment" and "World Whore One") vicarious enjoyment absent the soap opera of her life.
Wright is little more than a vessel for the men in her life, most spectacularly numbers 72, 137 and 600, and this final act is either her death knell or her personal reckoning, so of course it's comical and tragic, often in the same sentence.
But like a soap opera, Palahniuk tends to ladle on the preposterousness at the end -- let's just say that secret babies are the least of the cosmic revelations that come in the novel's last stanzas.
He's already established enough bizarre intersections that one begins to yearn for a small slice of normal by the book's conclusion.
But perhaps that's Palahniuk's intent, to show that what we are beginning to perceive as fairly normal behavior for a segment of society -- filming our sexual encounters -- does not exist in a vacuum, that what happens between the sheets, when pressed onto celluloid or digitized, has ramifications, has victims, maybe even has heroes.
Tod Goldberg is the author of the novels "Living Dead Girl" and "Fake Liar Cheat" and, most recently, the short story collection "Simplify."