Book Review of Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
Although I’ve heard of Chuck Palahniuk, particularly in the context of his highly successful novel Fight Club, I’d never read anything by him before until being sent Pygmy through the post. At first I was not sure that this was going be my sort of thing, but within a few pages I was hooked.
Imagine a country containing an amalgamation of all the worst attributes of North Korea, Communist China and Nazi Germany. Children are tested for their future educational and career needs at the age of four, and those who show high potential are whisked away from their parents into state institutions.
There they are brainwashed into complete subservience to the state, using a curriculum involving extreme martial arts, political indoctrination, chemical warfare and urban terrorism.
Now move forward to a mid-Western church in America where a female missionary feels such concern for these children that she arranges an exchange visit for a number of them to stay with American host-families.
The children arrive in America to have six months of respite from their harsh existence, and as the host-father puts it, to “to sing our songs and share the fellowship of our homes and church”.
However, unbeknown to these generous-hearted families, these children have been given a plan: their educators have shown them how to wreak “Operation Havoc”, a terrible act of destruction on the evil American town in which they have come to stay.
This book is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time, but also immensely clever. The whole book is written in the first person by one of the children, Operative 67, using a sort of pidgin American which takes some getting used to but provides considerable insight into the regime they have been brought up in.
Begins here first account of operative me, agent number 67 on arrival mid-western American airport greater _______ area. Flight ____. Date ______. Priority mission top success to complete. Code name. Operation Havoc.
The book is a satire, but on both cultures. The host-family are a sort of Simpsons-like parody of the ideal American family, mixing a mindless involvement in their church community while indulging in all the excesses of American culture.
The immigrant children however are classic communist automatons, parroting ideological phrases in everything they say. Agent 67 for example is surprised that in order to gain training in organic chemistry or nuclear particle flux statistics, American youth must:
engage too many idiot ritual: paint picture, volleyball, make waltz, craft poetry, scream idiot songs, torture violin or piano using many false note. Total most today, many useless tasks. Worst ever torture to watch youth wasted. “Junior Swing Choir”, a conspiracy oppress American youths, create them future slave workforce, singing million idiot song during labour of frying meat burgers, dunking fried potato of France deep in boiling fat.
Later, at his first visit to the family church, Operative 67 (now nicknamed Pygmy by his host family) is introduced to the minister, Reverend Tony,
This agent charged at by advancing male, brandishing open hand, fingers engaging those of operative me. Man, viper, crushing fingers as coiled around goat for kill and swallow, shaking arm as dog breaks backbone of rat. “Pleased to meet you Pygmy, I’m Reverend Tony”.
Mouth of Operative me say, “Happy to engage you crafty stooge of superstition. How is your health, puppet of Satan?”.
Worship Leader fashion forehead to lift single hair brow arching above eye. Devil Tony preserve smile. Say, “This little young ‘un needs to practice his English”.
I soon got used to this language and found myself paging back through the book to notice subtleties I’d missed earlier. You need to work at this book quite a bit, for its actually very clever indeed and is worth reading twice.
The story works forward to its inevitable conclusion, with many hilarious episodes along the way. Pygmy has to take part in every part of the family’s life and his commentary on their activities offers a unique perspective on dating, shopping and entertainment.
Little do these poor saps realise the hate-filled response of this small child among them whose every act is slowly working towards fulfilment of the mission set for him.
I enjoyed this book greatly. Is there a category of books which have been written in an invented langauge? I am thinking of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker for example. Or perhaps Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Chuck Palahniuk joins the ranks of these authors, and most successfully too.
Readers Loft tends to specialise in more literary works than this, but I am pleased to include this ingenious satire, which I think is one I will definitely be keeping on my shelves for future re-reading.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.