Beware of Foreign Exchange Students

This seems to be the most obvious lesson in Chuck Palahniuk’s outrageous (and hillarious) Pygmy.

In this story, a young teenager from an unnamed authoritarian regime arrives somewhere in the US heartland as an undercover agent intent on carrying out “Operation Havoc.”  Bloody, obscene hilarity ensues.

Nothing is sacred in Pygmy. Religion?  Skewered.  School shootings?  Got em.  Consumerism, pedophilia, illicit underage drug use and sex?  Check, check, and check.  What keeps all this shocking subject matter palatable, however, is the books brilliant narrative perspective.  The entire book is told through dispatches written by Operative 67 (sensitively dubbed Pygmy by his host family).  This perspective allows Palahniuk to unsparingly eviscerate Western culture in a thoroughly disarming manner.

Begins here nineteenth account of operative me, agent number 67, on arrival retail product distribution facility of city XXXXX.  For official record, no yet adopted legal adopted so become full member host family Cedar.  Making all effort resist absorption into American cult of the individual, traditional method entrenched oligarchy so maintain own power.  Fracture citizen isolated into different religion, different race, different family. Label as rich cultural diversity. Cleave as unique until each individual stand alone.  Until each vote no invested value.  Single citizen celebrated as special – in actual, remaining no power.

As told from the perspective of an adorable, yet deadly, spy, this statement is quite amusing.  Yet uncomfortably close to home.  The redaction of the city’s name is also a nice touch.

Not all the humor is quite so heavy.  Upon encountering an elderly greeter in his local Wal-Mart, Pygmy cheerfully addresses her.

“Most venerate ancient mother…much respected dying soon rotting corpse, to be commended such courage facing own imminent infirmity and demise.  Wish safe quick soon mission into next eternity.”

Or, making observations as he heads home from school:

Along returning journey, encounter frequent memorial honoring American battle warrior, great officer similar Lenin. Many vast mural depicting most savvy United States war hero. Rotating statue.  Looming visage noble American colonel.  Courageous renown of history, Colonel Sanders, image forever accompanied odor sacrificial meat.  Eternal flame offering wind savory perfume roasted flesh.

Some of the funniest parts of the book, the parts that had me laughing uncontrollably on a crowded subway, are parts that I’m not totally comfortable quoting here.  I’ll just leave it by saying that Pygmy’s reactions to adult novelty products and pornographic films are priceless.

This book is not for everyone.  It’ s a biting satire and ruthless indictment of contemporary American society that pulls no punches (although the ending, in my opinion, did back off from what had seemed like an inevitability).  It is also the funniest book I’ve read in years.

Any other Chuck Palahniuk books that are strongly recommended?



  1. Isn’t he the author of Fight club (which I keep meaning to read) This sounds like great fun & placed just on the wrong side of Pc. The laughing out loud on public transport, reminds me of Irvine Welsh’s short story collection ” reheated cabbage” or even the last Nick Cave book “The death of Bunny Monroe” both you not only laughed out loud, you didn’t dare explain why if asked . I keep meaning to try this writer, so thanks for the reminder.

    1. Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club. I seem to remember starting that one about the time the movie came out but I never really got into it. This one I started at the recommendation of a friend who thought I, as an English teacher, would be tickled by the language. A lot of how Pygmy speaks reminds me of how my students talk. I’ll have to look for that Nick Cave book. Thanks for the comments!

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