As soon as you start reading Tell-All, the much-hyped Tourette’s-like name-dropping sets in; the narrator, Hazie Coogan, lifetime assistant to the greatest living actress, Katherine Kenton, mentions everyone in the 50’s Hollywood phone book. The effect, however, doesn’t add the same credibility as the signature ultra-specialized vocabulary found in other Chuck Palahniuk novels. In this book, the effect just annoys, and takes so much of the novel’s time that the reader ends up still searching for any perceivable plot halfway through.
To complement the name-dropping, some of the celebrities are also quoted by Hazie Coogan, offering puns that serve as comments on the action. A husband becomes a “was-band.” A biography becomes a “lie-ography.” This witty terminology generally comes in threes, and it has the same effect as the name-dropping: it makes the novel feel uselessly crowded.
Despite his all-too-present, love-it-or-hate-it style, much of the originality of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels comes from the nature of his stories. In the most popular, Fight Club, a disenchanted man starts fighting strangers underground with an imaginary friend, and when that isn’t enough, creates a terrorist organization. In Diary, an art-school drop-out turned underappreciated waitress wreaks vengeance through prophetic apocalyptic paintings. And so on.
It takes much time, though, for this novel’s plot to actually reveal itself: it would seem that one of the aging star’s young suitors, Webster Carlton Westward III, is planning to kill her, as we read in the biography he is secretly writing. As Katherine Kenton and her assistant dodge each murderous plot, they must continually read the suitor’s constantly-rewritten final chapters to avoid her assassination. What upsets Katherine Kenton more, though, are the scandalous sex scenes found in the Harlequin-esque “lie-ography” entitled Love Slave that she fears will ruin her posthumous reputation.
All the while, Katherine Kenton is supposed to star in a Lillian Hellman play in which every actor is gradually killed, but she tries to avoid it, as she continually defends herself against her apparently murderous boyfriend.
At two different moments in the novel, the narrator decides to break the fourth wall and analyze our culture’s over-appreciation of celebrities. These are great pauses in the overall annoying narration punctuated by hundreds of dead movie stars’ names, but alas, these parentheses offer only short breaks in the novel’s bad habits.
In style, this is definitely a Chuck Palahniuk book: different storytelling elements used as leitmotifs (the name-dropping, inadequate translations and witty nicknames), the concept of aging and the body’s degradation, a dysfunctional three-way relationship, etc. Yet it lacks the wow factor — not necessarily generated by sensational violence, but by the sheer originality of the plot twists and turns characteristic of previous Palahniuk novels.
Joseph Elfassi is a Montréal-based photographer, filmmaker and writer. For more of his work, please visit http://www.elfassi.ca