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Book Review: Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

Fiction Reviews

Book Review: Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk
by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 179 pp.
CLR [rating:2.5]

Palahniuk Tells All . . . and Then Some

In a recent interview, Chuck Palahniuk admitted that his new novel, Tell-All, is merely one of three that he wrote during the year he cared for his mother. The other two won’t appear in 2010.

Perhaps that’s a wise move.

Tell-All follows the general plotline of the movie Sunset Boulevard, which pairs a down-and-out young writer with an aging actress seeking to reclaim her former glory. If you’re going to base a novel off of a movie, this 1950 noir classic is a terrific place to start. After all, it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, won three, and was ranked #12 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Best American Films of the 20th century. That’s a pretty fine literary pedigree for a writer of Palahniuk’s caliber to run with.

The narrator of Tell-All is Hazie Coogan, a personal assistant for the great actress Katherine Kenton. Hazie is clearly is the power behind the famous woman (as well as the self-appointed protector whose duties include chasing off gold-diggers). Enter Webster Carlton Westward III, the handsome young lad who is crazy for Katherine. Unlike the many men who have traipsed through Katherine’s life, Webster seems different. Maybe he’s not so much crazy about Katherine as much as just plain crazy.

Hazie seems very much like Max von Mayerling, the stoic German butler of Sunset Boulevard. She’s quite obsessive over her boss, so Webster’s attentions make her jealous even before she learns of his already-written memoir which foretells Katherine’s death. The name of this memoir? Love Slave.

The source of Webster’s affections, Katherine, seems to be a somewhat hilarious combination of every starlet of Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Elizabeth Taylor to Greta Garbo to Ingrid Bergman to Judy Garland. Together with Hazie’s assistance, Katherine works to combat Webster’s various deadly plans that he seems not only to imagine for her but also help to bring about. Each near miss makes him have to rework his memoir towards even more lethal situations. The second act of this three-act story is full of these increasingly deadly moments.

The novel also features Lillian Hellman, a playwright who was Dashiell Hammett’s lover and author of The Children’s Hour, a film which paired Audrey Hepburn and Shirley McClain as lesbians. Palahniuk openly admitted that he wanted to remake Hellman as a “larger than life superhero” using many of the events and details from her memoir An Unfinished Woman as inspiration. His wildly fictionalized version of Hellman has her claiming to have personally ended World War II, which is fairly amusing in a very Palahniuk kind of way. She also solves John Glenn’s Friendship 7 issues in space, and then has zero gravity sex with him. Great fun indeed!

That being said, here’s the straight scoop on Tell-All. It doesn’t have that wonderful sense of darkness and dread the infused Sunset Boulevard. It also doesn’t have the punch (pun intended) of Fight Club, or the pizzazz of 2001’s Choke. Worse, his writing style—which has been criticized for being problematic and formulaic—is downright troubling in this book. Why? First, there’s Tourette’s-like name-dropping of often-irrelevent names that are always in bold, as if that might help this postmodern gimmick pass literary muster. One particular flurry of name-dropping in just four lines includes Jean Harlow, Lon Chaney Sr., Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Knute Rockne, Gilda Gray, Hattie McDaniel, and June Harver. Second, the story is narrated by Hazie, who tells stories within stories, uses flashbacks and other narrative devices including stage directions. This creates a confusing alternate reality that at times becomes very difficult to slog through. At times it is close to impenetrable. Third, the first section of the book is slow. V-e-r-y slooow.

Too, Palahniuk has the heavy theme of “beauty above all” in Tell-All, which is fine in and of itself, but we’ve seen it from him before in Snuff and other works. His always-there plot twists also fail to completely satisfy, and in some cases, further problematize an already complicated story that’s trying to be a cross-genre, postmodern tale but finally falls somewhat short of that goal.

Where Palahniuk really gets it right is where Katherine shows vulnerability, such as when she auditions a long string of orphans to pose with—it quickly becomes clear that she thinks a young child serves as a terrific fashion accessory. Among other funny parts are the mention that a lifetime achievement award is simply a prize given for not dying. His take on the public’s fascination of celebrity worship and the jackal culture underpinning it is also interesting at times. Palahniuk supposedly got the idea for Tell-All after the movie premiere for Choke, where he heard a celebrity name-dropping like crazy. An hour later, he was in a cab with some publishing folks who were talking about the many celebrity biographies they had ready to go the moment they died. Slap a quick chapter on the end about the death, and it’s cash-in time. It seems like Tell-All might’ve had a stronger sense of social criticism if he really wanted to tackle these issues.

Though this isn’t a large novel by any means, 179 pages is far too much for this particular style, topic, and cast of characters (none of whom are particularly sympathetic). Even Hazie, the most reasonable character, remains a bit of an enigma from start to finish. Tell-All has the feel of a very interesting short story that was stretched—to the breaking point, in this case.

Ryan G. Van Cleave was the 2007-2008 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. He has taught creative writing and literature at Clemson University, Eckerd College, Florida State University, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as at prisons, community centers, and urban at-risk youth facilities. He lives in Sarasota, FL where he works as a freelance writer, editor, consultant, ghostwriter, and script doctor. He serves as Director of CandR Press, a non-profit literary organization based in Chattanooga, TN.

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