Culture & Conversation

Young Boy Destroy Decadent Capitalist Nation of America

You’ll read the first two pages, then check out page fifty and page 137, just to see if the writing is like that throughout the whole book. It is. It might be hard at first, but you’ll quickly realize you’ve never read anything like Pygmy, the latest novel from über-productive author Chuck Palahniuk.

A small boy, called Pygmy by his adoptive American family, seems innocent. The denizens of his typical American town might dislike him, and be racist, but it’s a Borat-like dislike: they want to convert him to the American way. Thing is, Pygmy’s actually secretly plotting to destroy America at his next science fair.

Follow his cruel training in his unnamed homeland, watch him kick ass at a local Wal-Mart and see what happens when you mix bad English, cynical American schoolkids and a plot to destroy America. What you get is a Chuck Palahniuk book unlike any other. In some ways, it is similar to other Chuck Palahniuk novels: a larger world-disaster type plot reveals itself through the first person’s oft-negative narrative. Destruction and blood, some kind of US road trip, short sentences and paragraphs, specialized vocabulary, and other characteristics let you know, right away, you’re reading something from the mind who gave us Fight Club.

In other ways, though, this story is completely different. First of all, the English is intentionally horrible. Simple sentences, like “faster than the eye can see” are transformed into “more fast most eye able see”. The author created a list of linguistic rules (no “the”, no negatives, etc.) for the character’s speech, transforming everyday places like Wal-Mart and KFC into odd shrines that we still recognize thanks to Palahniuk’s talented rendering.

This novel is also unique in its focus on the power of love. There might be obsessions, attractions, and dependencies in his other novels, but in this one, the young boy brainwashed to destroy America at a science fair actually falls in love. And if you’re turned off by the idea of love in a Chuck Palahniuk book, you may find solace in the Wal-Mart bathroom rape scene, or the Model UN shooting. Sure there’s love — authentic, innocent, sweet love felt by a boy programmed never to feel anything. But there’s also everything else that’s made you appreciate previous Palahniuk stories.

This is a highly original novel. The plot and the characters are all unusual, but it is the novel’s style that takes center stage. The book is written in undeniably bad English, but all the descriptions and dialogue, when they aren’t tremendously funny (Pygmy’s conversation with the local pastor is priceless) are just stunning. Chuck Palahniuk has pulled off quite a feat here: he’s reconstructed the language for his character, and while the first lines may give you a headache, your inner narrator is probably going to end up thinking like Pygmy by the end. This is Chuck Palahniuk’s best novel.

Joseph Elfassi is a freelancer journalist and photographer. You can visit his blog at

  • 6 Responses to “Young Boy Destroy Decadent Capitalist Nation of America”

    1. Leila

      Is there a reason – integral to the story or characters – that Palahniuk creates this specialized (gimicky?) language? I have to admit I’ve never read him, but I can’t say this review brought be closer.

    2. Dru Jeffries

      I think that this is easily Palahniuk’s worst novel. The plot is unoriginal and derivative (I’m not alone is making a comparison to a Simpson’s episode from many years ago) and the writing style is, as is not unusual for CP, distracting and juvenile. CP basically creates character “tics” – in this book, it’s quotations from infamous military leaders and absurd martial arts maneuvers — and then treats his narratives as an excuse to load each page with as many of these as possible. His writing quickly becomes predictable and downright tiresome.

      Something else about CP that I first noticed in Choke is that he doesn’t seem to think through some of his key set pieces. When you think them through — say to yourself, “Could this plausibly happen in any reality resembling our own?” — they don’t stand up to scrutiny. In Choke, it was the conceit that people would continually send the protagonist money simply because they once saved his life. In Pygmy, there are many, but I’ll point one out in particular. There’s a scene that occurs at a student parliament-type of meeting that starts as a Girls Gone Wild-type affair (15 year old students freely engaging in sex acts) and ends in an orgy of violence. Would any school put on such an event WITHOUT ANY SUPERVISION? CP expects us to swallow it without question. Pygmy requires more than just suspension of disbelief — it requires suspension of quality control.

    3. Joseph Elfassi

      @ Leila: Well, the basic reason is this is how the character speaks, how he learned english in his “rogue state”. Chuck Palahniuk had a much better response during his book tour, but I can’t paraphrase him as I don’t remember the explanation in detail. It was after a horrible radio interview he did in Germany that he decided to write a book in an English as bad as Americans used other languages…

      I’m not being really clear here, I hope this answers your question a bit!

    4. Dru Jeffries

      If you were also at the Indigo event that CP appeared at, you heard the Germany radio story. It was funnier than anything in the book.

    5. Joseph Elfassi

      Yes, I was at the Indigo event, this is where the picture comes from, actually. But I don’t share your opinion on the book being so un-funny


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