Beginning with a Sam Peckinpah montage reminiscent in mood of the ADD-inducing jump-cuts of an MTV video, this third book by Chuck Palahniuk is a fascinating study of current societal values as seen through the eyes of impossible characters. And the message ain't pretty! Not a surprise considering Palahniuk's first book was the recently-filmed Fight Club.
Our narrator is Shannon McFarland, or Kay MacIsaak, or some such name. A supermodel by trade, we meet her sometime after an incident in which her face is horribly disfigured, freeing her to engage in an update of On the Road. At first, the subject matter will have the reader praying that Palahniuk is not some Bret Easton Ellis wannabe; the fashion industry as a topic should generally send the literate screaming. In fact, this novel is more Don Delillo than Ellis, a rollicking and bizarre gender-bending buddy story with something to offend and shock even the most hardened among us.
This is not the type of book for which providing a synopsis is helpful or appropriate. The writing is anything but linear, while the content is filled with twists and surprises. Palahniuk's characters are Hunter S. Thompson hedonists, and their exploits are evocative of Thelma and Louise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Heathers, the films of David Lynch and John Waters, and other cultural milestones of questionable taste. Yet, ultimately, the book works.
Palahniuk is able to make the following scene, which would be silly and overdrawn if imagined in any other context, actually poignant in its desperation and shallowness:
"Don't let me die here on this floor," Brandy says, and her big hands clutch at me. "My hair," she says. "My hair will be flat in the back."
Palahniuk's humor is cringingly wonderful. Our narrator reports:
Some days, I hate it when Brandy changes our lives without warning. Sometimes, twice in one day, you have to live up to a new identity. A new name. New relationships. Handicaps. It's hard to remember who I started this road trip being. No doubt, this is the kind of stress the constantly mutating AIDS virus must feel.
My passing grade in modeling school was just because Evie'd dragged down the curve. She'd wear shades of lipstick you'd expect to see around the base of a penis.
The dinner-table scene in which the politics of the AIDS Quilt is discussed is tastelessly hilarious, as are all the other scenes with Shannon's parents, for whose affection Shannon unsuccessfully competes with her dead brother, Shane. That she has lost this battle is confirmed by her mother writing: "[I]t's not that we don't love you ... it's just that we don't show it."
Below the surface, Invisible Monsters is layered with depth. It reveals itself as far more than literary punk rock. Ongoing metaphors abound, like the use of cosmetics as identity. The book shows the lengths to which people go to be loved (or at least to think they're loved). The story is hardwired with a leitmotif summed up by the resurfacing question: "When did the future switch from being a promise to a threat?"
Palahniuk illustrates America's loss of innocence beginning with our world's-fair-era technical dominance, and symbolized in so many ways by the existence of AIDS.
Though the frequent use of "jump to" as a literary device for segueing grows tired, Palahniuk successfully applies complicated and engaging writing, the literary equivalent of spin-art, to tell a funny and moving story. Brilliant in places, this book should be read by those who appreciate a fresh voice and style, and an unflinching cultural beating.