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Chuck Palahniuk
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Doubleday / Random House
USA Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-52635-7
Publication Date: 05-04-2010
180 pages, $24.95
Date Reviewed: 01-08-2011

Index:  General Fiction  Horror

With distance comes perspective. That's the Big Picture, the Emotion Picture, what we choose to remember as we write the screenplay that is our lives. We're ruthless editors, who care not a whit for the truth of the matter. Not the factual truth, at any rate. The emotional truth, or at least how we would have preferred to have felt, now that matters. We all want a character arc we can be proud of.

But what if you wanted what was not possible, and in some ways, not desirable? Imagine you want the factual truth and the emotional truth, but also something that was entertaining? How many layers of text and context would you need to internalize to tell a painful story, to show a painful truth, to speak to the heights of the intellect while keeping the gutters flowing freely?

Chuck Palahniuk packed more punch, more complexity and more lurid fun into 'Tell All' (Doubleday / Random House ; May 10, 2010 ; $24) than you'd expect to be possible in such a short book. At 180 pages, it might be called a novella if it weren't for the fact that there's more there there than in many 800 page opuses. 'Tell All' deftly combines the lowest of the low and the highest of the high so organically that it might take months for the reader to unpack. In fact, it's the sort of novel that you could read three or four times and never remember as even being the same novel you had read before. And no matter how many times you read it, it never screams, "I am a novel by the guy who wrote Fight Club." Unless, of course, the guy wrote 'Fight Club' has been transformed by aliens into a fairly batty maid who is tending to a rapidly declining ex-movie star.

That maid would be Hazie Coogan, who somewhere in all the layers of 'Tell-All' is our narrator, the woman who is indeed telling all. But readers should get this straight coming out of the gate; nothing in 'Tell-All' is anything like what it either seems it is, seems it should be, or seems it wants to be. The novel is awash in post-modern meta-fictional layers slathered on so thick that being lost means you're right on track. In fact, it's not a novel either; it's more of a movie for the mind, an emotion picture of a mind that is fragmenting because it has been assembled badly from fragments of other people's minds.

The prose in 'Tell-All' is unique and challenging. Palahniuk writes the novel as if the entire story were a gossip column, complete with bold-faced proper and product names. From the get-go, the hype level is insanely over-the-top. It's a distancing mechanism, one that gives the reader a perspective all right, but a skewed and weirdly distorted vision. Reading 'Tell-All' is sort of like taking LSD and watching "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" on a cheeseball local TV station that interrupts the movie every 60 seconds or so with amped-up, ramped-up infomercials. But there's a distinct method acting to the madness.

The method acting comes via Palahniuk's three characters, Hazie, the maid, Katherine Kenton, the actress and Webster Carlton Westward. If they are all mad, then so are we. Hazie and Web are writing dueling books, and Katherine is the subject of both. Or at least purportedly the subject, because everyone is awash in fantasy and celebrity worship, so lost in glitz that everything that matters gets pretty blurry. Until, of course, things start to take darker and darker turns, as the plot seeps upward, like blood rising magically from the floor in a horror flick.

Palahniuk's novel is superbly plotted. It's twisty and dense and subtle, under a veneer of the obvious and crashingly loud. As the layers of lies peel away, another character leans hard on the "truth turns to fiction" button and we're in another story, alone with considerably more peril than we expected. It's not supposed to be unusual to live in a state of heightened emotions. But the result is an unreality that can become treacherously dangerous. Palahniuk's treachery is our treat; he eviscerates his readers with the sort of glee that is usually reserved for his characters.

It's true that 'Tell-All,' now long in the teeth in book-event terms, is nothing like what many of Palahniuk's fans think they want. But it is also true that the novel offers pleasures that one can discover only on repeated readings, that it rewards reading and re-reading. It's an oxymoron, a novel written for readers in the form of a film about those who make films. It is a Möbius strip comprised of Möbius strips. Every twist leads to a new twist, and back on itself. It's a nose-pore revealing close-up from an infinite distance.

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