By Chuck Palahniuk
The stranger from a strange land who comically misunderstands our crazy world has a pedigree that runs from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters to Borat. In the case of Chuck Palahniuk’s Agent 67, nicknamed Pygmy, a secret agent from an unnamed communist dictatorship sent to unleash Operation Havoc and “create infinite damage dead” in the United States, he even sounds like Borat. Which makes the reading of his dispatches from capitalism’s den of vipers a deliberately disorienting experience. And while the language is sometimes used to clever or humorous effect –Pygmy’s version of a pick-up line: “Respected potential reproductive vessel, request engage preliminary foreplay ritual prior genital coitus” – it doesn’t get any easier as things go along.
Posing as an exchange student, Pygmy is adopted by a “typical” American host family and attends the local “American education facility devoted humiliation and destroy all self-respect out native youth.” The name of his new hometown is blacked out in his dispatches but it may as well be the Simpsons’ Springfield. In due order Palahniuk skewers all of the usual targets: the dysfunctional nuclear family, blood and guts in high school, religious hypocrisy, the cynical media, and the “plenteous plentitude” of Wal-Mart.
The plot revolves around cartoonish poles of sex and violence, Palahniuk’s only real themes. The violence includes the now obligatory school shooting, bone-crunching ninja maneuvers (the Barracuda Deadly Eye Gouge, the Pummeling Kangaroo, the Monkey Mash), and a brutal homosexual rape that would be graphic if it weren’t rendered opaque by Pygmy’s pidgin. As for sex, there are a series of running gags concerning vibrators and the secondary mission of the terrorist clique to impregnate as many young women as possible, using their “reproductive weapons” in Pumping Rabbit “fertility attacks.”
We have been here before, indeed many times already with Palahniuk. And for all its hysterical gesturing, the satire this time out is both predictable and curiously anodyne. Pygmy, a political zealot with a head full of quotations from figures like Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Nixon, is finally opposed not by American innocence or virtue but the sensibly apolitical and apathetic American middle class – well-fed, well-meaning types capable of absorbing satire and terror with equal indifference.
Review first published in the Toronto Star May 10, 2009.