Given Chuck Palahniuk's relentless wallowing in gross-out stories tied to taboo subjects—the man who accidentally disembowels himself while masturbating in Haunted, say, or the extended segment on menstrual-pad "pussy prints" in Rant—even hardcore fans can be forgiven for approaching his latest novel, Snuff, with trepidation. A porn superstar trying to break a record by fucking 600 men in a row How could Palahniuk not wring out that subject for its full sticky, messy worth? And yet, while Snuff is recognizably Palahniuk, drenched in body fluids, shocking trivia tidbits, and neurosis-collection characters, it's also surprisingly sweet and funny. Maybe that's because he kept it so short and simple that he didn't leave himself room to spread out and get really nasty. So to speak.
Snuff alternates between four viewpoint characters. One is Sheila, personal assistant to porn queen Cassie Wright, and mastermind behind the 600-dudes video. The other three are men who responded to a cattle call, were numbered in indelible ink, and are standing around in their skivvies, waiting to be summoned to Cassie's well-lit bed. "Mr. 72" is a desperate young man who grew up obsessed with Cassie, both as a sex object and as his possible birth mother. "Mr. 137" is a former TV star hoping for a little positive publicity. And "Mr. 600" is a porn star himself, an aging, blown-out has-been who hasn't yet realized that he's on the downhill side of his peak.
Typical for a Palahniuk book, all four of these perspectives read about the same—they're all full of digressionary musings and factoid flashes about, for instance, the horrible beauty secrets of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. All four protagonists are also full of rapidly emerging secrets that bind them together; if the action wasn't so tremendously internal, Snuff would read like a one-act play. It unfolds in a quick, sprightly way over the course of barely 200 pages, touching on incest, Viagra overdose symptoms, and a whole lot of punny porn-film names (Chitty Chitty Gang Bang, The Blow Jobs Of Madison County, Sperms Of Endearment, etc.), but mostly just building a multifaceted picture of a seemingly ugly scene that covers some surprisingly high-minded motivations. It's hard to say this is Palahniuk's best book since Fight Club, because it's such an airy fillip of a book, a jumped-up short story without the knotty plottiness of Lullaby or Survivor. But it's the most fun he's been in a long time, without the sense of sickly, grotesque one-upmanship and morbidity that so often plagues his work.