Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk

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Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very droll satire on American global politics, that takes a blend of blunt and subtle, dresses it up with a quirky delivery and breeds a success.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224087131

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In response to an attack from America - usual global politics or terrorism - an unnamed country sends several agents to the US. One of these - Agent 67 - is rather unusual. He is so small everybody calls him Pygmy, and we will never learn his real name either. He is completely skilled in his profession, but is able to fit easily into the guise of an exchange student for Mr and Mrs Average American and their children. Pygmy can instantly sniff out how and when the unhealthy, corrupted, heathen parents will die - but he seems to have many more deaths up his sleeve.

You do sometimes wonder just how completely genned up on America Pygmy is, as he explores his surroundings, from Wal-Mart to the church, to school, where he at first fits in like an elephant in a punnet of strawberries. But eventually things take several large turns, and all his skills - and knowledge of the periodical table - will be required.

Pygmy is a delight to have as lead character, and narrator, insofar as his reports back home are what we're reading. He has several missions undergo at any one time, ranging from Operation Havoc, to one where he must inseminate as many virile young Americans as he can. Being a bit devoid of stature, that's not many, if they have anything to do with it. Every chapter he meets some circumstance where he is itching to undergo a different lethal combat move - Launching leopard, fly-blam! - and several of these regard another agent he is fond of. For the same school and town has been flooded with similar agents, and in one of the more amusing chapters it's them and only them that succeed in a spelling bee - prolonging it beyond the patience of all others present.

And so here's my token paragraph about language. The voice of Pygmy is brilliantly sustained, and most unusual. His dialogue and reported narrative are unique in their construction, missing out several smaller words (there is hardly an of present), having a different syntax to common English and more. One rather popular online retailer is flooded with reviews already saying this didn't work for them - they gave up within half an hour, it seems - but it worked fine for me. I know there are changes in rhythm and stress I didn't fully get a complete grip on here and there, but I liked it, from his nicknames and statements about his new family (host father present as vast breathing cow, blowing out putrid stink diet heavy with dead slaughterhouse flesh, bellowing stench of Viagra breath during cow father reach to clasp hand of operative me) to his awkward-and-then-some approaches to girls, and beyond.

This boils down to a satire of American global politics, and there Palahniuk is again on form. Everywhere you look there is a quotable line or two about America and the world, and the whole gamut of arch humour is here from the subtle to the blatant. It's obvious to all that the plot is a Republican-baiting mirror of recent American happenings, where a defence against bullying only escalates.

So I loved the satire, I liked the quirk of the writing style, and I found a lot in the general, bubbly whole. The story engaged throughout and entertained me, and if anything the simplicity of our author's plot and intent is given a final fillup by the barrage of unusual circumstances, metaphors and discoveries of young Pygmy. I had only read one Palahniuk before this, and it impressed me so much I can't even remember which one it was. I had him down as akin to Brett Easton Ellis - someone whose Hollywood-aided reputation is a lot greater than many of their works. But this was an errant success - a whole-heartedly witty entertainment, easy to read in one long evening, despite the unusual language, a clear and clearly superior satire, and just an enjoyable story and (anti?-)hero.

I must thank the nice Jonathan Cape people for my review copy.

If this book appeals then we think that you might also enjoy The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen.

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