Previous readers of Palahniuk will know what is coming up in this first paragraph. A warning. Like Fight Club, Choke and basically everything the man has written before, this book will be likely to offend a variety of people. It’s not as extreme as something likeHaunted – which after my recommendation did actually make a friend of mine feel a little ill and then look at me funny afterwards – but Palahniuk is still pushing the boundaries of taste here.
Penny Harrigan is a clumsy and slightly inadequate barrister-in-training that meets a rich and sexually experienced older bachelor. C. Linus Maxwell is a domineering sort of fellow, who introduces her to pleasures she has never known. If your eyes are currently rolling and this all sounds a little familiar, you aren’t wrong. The book begins life as a thinly-veiled parody of various trashy erotic novels (most notably a certain series that deals in monochrome colours) but before long descends into something altogether stranger; a world populated by ancient Nepalese sex witches, tiny nanobots, apocalyptic scenes of destruction, and a bonfire of exploding sex toys.
This is not a subtle book. The satire hits like a sledgehammer, and the numerous sexual acts are recorded in extreme detail – but all written in a wordy and clinical fashion, like a Latin anatomical dictionary exploded over the page. This makes the whole thing decidedly un-erotic, and at times veers between oddly discomforting and hilariously bizarre. There were certain pages that I found myself laughing out loud in the staff room to – and then of course found myself having to read them out loud to a sea of bemused (and probably slightly worried) colleagues.
It’s also almost as much a lampoon of lazy erotic-lit as it is a satire of certain far-right elements in the American political landscape. Written like the paranoid and misogynistic fever dream of a “men’s rights” activist, Palahniuk imagines a world where women no longer need men, and are obsessed by things like boy bands and teen vampire books, adoring things coated in bright pink and doing a lot of squealing and shopping. What is quite interesting is to see a variety of references to Fight Club scattered about – whether he initially intended this to be a post-feminist female companion piece to that book before he got distracted by parody, I don’t know.
I’m not entirely sure what to think of Beautiful You. It all feels a little more frivolous and less pointed than his previous work. Fight Club was a brilliant and angry fist at a world obsessed with consumerism that was mainly grounded in reality, whereas this is a cliché exploiting neon flash of a novel. It made me laugh at its over-the-top nature quite a lot, and underneath all the sex and self-pleasure there is a protagonist to care about, and possibly under that is a message of self-empowerment. Palahniuk fans should probably check this out, and brave readers that aren’t put off by the subject matter and are looking for something different might find a cult favourite here.