Sunday 26 February 2023

Beautiful You - Chuck Palahniuk (2014)


Rating: Admirable

Palahniuk is known as a transgressional author, one who takes on taboo or controversial themes in a manner that pushes their boundaries to the extreme. Beautiful You is undoubtably thematically extreme, featuring weird sex, hyper capitalism and male emasculation. Penny Harrigan is the kind of female protagonist, hyperconscious and awkward, just getting by in corporate culture, who would helm an American sit-com across ten seasons, only learning her lessons in the last season. Only this is a Palahniuk novel and Harrigan ends up in the clutches of the worlds richest man, C. Linus Maxwell, who proceeds to experiment on her with an array of sex toys of his own devising. Harrigan is literally driven to life threatening physical extremes by his ministrations. At the same time she's drawn into the world of the super-rich and the attentions Maxwell's former sexual muses, a famous actress and a woman who has become the first female president of America. This is, at least initially, all quite entertaining stuff, especially as you anticipate what Maxwell's plans will do to society, virtually making men and their ineffectual penises and clumsy techniques, obsolete.

This does indeed occur (male obsolescence) and once Harrigan is freed from Maxwell's ministrations after a set amount of time (136 days), she realises just what trouble society is in as Maxwell's new line of sex toys takes the female population by storm. Maxwell is a true evil protagonist flexing his capitalist muscle. a walking cliche, but that's part of the point. In this regard the implacable logic of how he goes about his business in this age is high capitalism, surveillance capitalism and downright exploitative capitalism, really rings true. Harrigan's attempts to rectify the situation are entertaining enough, but about two thirds of the way through what was quite a good novel, things start to become slightly ridiculous, as Palahniuk turns up the dial of extremity. Beautiful You never promised to be an example of sober realism, but where the novel eventually goes to is absurd, particularly the denouement, which involves women driven to homelessness by their sex toy habits, a shotgun wedding, a naked sex guru from Tibet and death by a fiery flying dildo. This novel is a wild ride that fills in some time on the train-ride to work, but it also leaves you feeling a bit empty, kind like impulse buying, followed by buyers regret. Fortunately I didn't buy this novel, nor any sex toys.

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