Some books are about language; Chuck Palahniuk's recent Pygmy is about second language (or third or fourth or...). It has a reputation for being difficult, thanks to the stilted English of its foreign narrator referred to as "Pygmy," an "exchange student" from somewhere in some Middle American town who's actually a terrorist with a culture-obliterating objective. To those who aren't able to get through it: try harder. Pygmy is the novelization of the joy resulting from the unwitting wordplay of non-native tongues. (And I say that in good-natured admiration, not derision -- anyone who's butchering a second language is doing better than I am. I don't even own a cleaver.) All the bluntness and literalism of Pygmy's English is also present in his interpretation of American culture, which means that the book is full of gems like this rant against school choir:
"All must sing nonsense or no allowed college, no advanced physics and training. Force compelled to sing how yearning for location on top arched spectrum of light wavelengths created by precipitate. Exact song expressed Judy Garland, woeful martyr, slaughtered pawn of capitalist entertainment machine combined pharmaceutical complex.”
Because I think discussion is a more worthy medium than recommendation, I don't tend to endorse things as my sole response, but I'm telling you now: if ESL-humor is something you enjoy, read this fucking book. I enjoyed every word of it. I got a little teary, even, when it was done, not because of the content (even though the end is kind of a bummer in its upbeat way) but because I'm going to miss Pygmy's world view. Among his offerings, I will miss:
- His rumbling about pop music ("insane garbage lyrics...musical corn syrup")
- His backhanded salutations to his elders ("Venerate ancestor, much respected soon to be rotting corpse")
- His open disdain for organized religion (he refers to a priest as "crafty stooge of superstition," and "licking viper of evil")
- His morbidly detached flashes of insight ("Perhaps true profound affection defined by no entering vagina without consent")
- His cultural criticism ("Punish for sodomy by place operative me imprisoned full lifetime accompanied numerous sodomites. Such the absurdity American legal justice")
- And his funny way of referring to the most banal elements of American life ("evil puppet maid of parking meters," "Pig of Guinea").
I'll also miss Palahniuk's skewering of things like spelling bees and stealing office supplies and permanently zonked, oversexed parents, again all taken to delightfully absurd lengths (the son in Pygmy's host family bought his dad a subscription to a porn site for Christmas because "at least this ways we know they’re home...and not out looking for trouble”). It's a cynical book, but it never seems quite as mean as other stuff I've read by Palahniuk or by others who go bam-slam with vulgarity and satire in an attempt to critique American culture. The targets may be easy, but the lighthearted tone makes it all feel a lot less obvious.
There's also, I think, such a human message ultimately about people being people, no matter how aggressively they're programmed, no matter how terroristic their objectives. (Not to mention the hypocrisy of attacking a culture you find heinous by acting heinous, as terrorists often do.) At its most profound, the book is a dance between beauty and offense and I realized that early on. It was after an anal rape that I fell in love:
"Electric-bolt eyes of bully bleeding water. Blue star of fighting anus leak blood into thin stripes down white legs. Everywhere patriotic. Here so great American nation."
Pygmy's (male bully) rape victim goes on to fall in love with him, and once he expresses this, Pygmy explains to him that he's suffering from Stockholm syndrome, and that he's bonded with his aggressor because he's unable to accept his powerlessness and helplessness (this is, of course, explained in much choppier language). I could relate to that victim: with descriptions so vividly ironic and darkly hilarious filling Pygmy, it's hard to resist equating violence with love.