Chuck Palahniuk is something of a devilish demigod in gross-out social satire. Over the years, his signature attention to minutiae and his generous hand with carnal humor in books such as Fight Club and Choke have broadened his fan base to include geeks and bros alike. One might call him the king of red Solo cup literati.
In Beautiful You, Palahniuk turns his gimlet eye to the subject of female pleasure and the ways in which it can be manipulated to affect society and boost the bottom line. At the center of the novel is Penny Harrigan, a 20-something Queens-dwelling Nebraska transplant and law-office drone. She represents the urban Everywoman who is stuck on the corporate ladder and otherwise adrift. In the grip of a quarter-life crisis, she wonders where those years of studying gender politics in college have led her.
“With apologies to Simone de Beauvoir,” Palahniuk writes, “Penny didn’t want to be a third wave anything. … She didn’t want to replicate the victories of Susan B. Anthony and Helen Gurley Brown. She wanted a choice beyond: Housewife versus lawyer. Madonna versus whore. An option not mired in the lingering detritus of some Victorian-era dream. Penny wanted something wildly beyond feminism itself.”
Instead, Penny finds herself in the grip of something far more retro: a romance with a devious cad who pretends to have her best interests — and deepest gratifications — in mind. Their relationship begins when Penny falls down in the law office of mega-mogul tech genius C. Linus Maxwell, and he gives her a hand up into a radically different life as “the Nerd’s Cinderella.” This glamorous but geeky playboy begins courting her heavily, and the story clumsily unfolds from there.
Penny quickly realizes that she’s less paramour than unwitting research assistant as Maxwell, aka “Climax-Well,” attempts to build a line of irresistible female sex toys based on his expert manipulations of her pleasure centers. This is an intriguing enough concept, but as Palahniuk tries to trace Penny’s trajectory from mousey nothingburger to bedroom-bound lab rat, he makes a number of fumbles. Athough the book ostensibly is set in the present, Penny charges a dress at Bonwit Teller, a store that has been out of business since 1990.
At one of their swanky restaurant-of-the-moment rendezvous, someone orders chicken divan, a dish that hasn’t been fashionable since the Mad Men era. In a story that aims, among other things, to critique current fads and fashion, these gaffes, and others like them, are mood killers.
The plot, in which civilization topples as women abandon their responsibilities in favor of another quick buzz, feels just as sloppy, a haphazard, battery-operated Brave New World. Even a hail of projectile sex toys shrieking through the air like so many silicone scuds doesn’t provide sufficient comic relief. And the climax (sorry) revealing the motivation behind Maxwell’s product innovation never rises above “meh.” Penny ultimately makes her post-feminist vision come true, but in a way that is disappointingly primitive.
Palahniuk seems to be faking it here (again, sorry). Beautiful You feels phoned-in, a master satirist’s dip in standards. The success of a comedy such as this, however broad, depends on characters who are immediately recognizable and plot twists that make us sit up rather than shrug. Be they big or small, God lives in the details, even when the devil tells the tale.
Lily Burana reviewed this book for The Washington Post.