One of the commonest complaints about Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk is his formulaic writing style, which relies on prose interspersed with random, preferably gruesome factoids. The trivia is gone in Tell-All, but he’s found a far more obnoxious means of padding his text. In what he calls a Tourette’s syndrome of name-dropping, the book is packed with names in bold font, many of which are so obscure that modern readers won’t get the references without research.
The plot is essentially a retelling of Sunset Boulevard narrated by Hazie Coogan, a domestic servant who takes credit for launching Hollywood sensation Katherine Kenton to stardom. The story follows Coogan’s efforts to protect Kenton as she falls for a much younger man, who seems to be after more than the love of an aging star.
Palahniuk’s story lacks the gruesome dread that made Sunset Boulevard a film classic. His writing is over the top, and his descriptions of dog shit and dead spiders try to substitute shock for legitimate scene-setting. It’s impossible to sympathize with any of the characters; Coogan in particular comes across as a weak imitation of Tender Branson, narrator of Palahniuk’s Survivor. The attempts at humor also fall short. One terrible running gag involves Kenton translating foreign phrases into other foreign languages. Actions are often explained through meaningless quotes such as “what Walter Winchell means by the term ‘toast masturbating.’ Or ‘laud mouthing,’ to Hedda Hopper. According to Louella Parsons, ‘implying gilt.’”
While the obligatory plot twist makes many of the earlier pieces of the puzzle fall into place nicely, other events suddenly make no sense at all. That same confusion shows in the timeline-baffling name-dropping. Kenton asks why “that brilliant Dr. Josef Mengele in Munich” hasn’t come up with a cure for her old-lady hands; less than six months later, she receives a script about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Tell-All has its moments. A section on how lifetime-achievement awards are just prizes for not dying is well done, and there’s a ring of truth to Kenton’s feeling that a baby is the best fashion accessory for a woman trying to hide her age. One of the best scenes features Kenton auditioning an endless stream of orphans to pose with. There’s a solid short story buried in Tell-All’s 179 pages, but the novel is so filled with dross that it isn’t worth slogging through.