This startling, raw novel deals mainly with cruelty and, trendy as it seems these days, numbness and fecundity in a modern America. The protagonist is former fashion model Shannon McFarland, turned monstrous when a horrible accident results in the loss of her entire jaw. From there her journey is not one of self acceptance, as one might expect, but instead a criminally motivated trip across America with a pre-op transvestite, McFarland’s very own Humbert Humbert, tour guide through a land wasted by consumerism and misery, and spoiled by a cornucopia of empty possessions.
Palahniuk’s strongly post modern style may be familiar to fans of his earlier work, Fight Club, but Invisible Monsters seems at times to hit its reader over the head with blatant thematic red flags. Among these figurative anvils are images of models posing with pig carcasses and a stocking full of prophylactics for Christmas. The authors’ message, though sagacious, loses a bit of its profundity when linked to the vulgar redundancy that this is a book about death, insensitivity, and more death and insensitivity. The hallmark of postmodernism is well-preserved here in the idea of representation taking precedence over plot and realism, but the geniuses of the genre mastered the art of balance, which is not as skillfully maintained here. It seems for Palahniuk the point is to overdo everything, but this does nothing to ease the reader into a state of absorbing the novel’s message gracefully.
Though the harshness of the characters often put me off, many of Palahniuk’s descriptions and metaphors were magnificent. Hilarious references are repeatedly made to the mutilated protagonist’s “butter crème frosting hairdo,” and a dermabrasion procedure is likened to “pressing a ripe tomato against a belt sander.” This is where Palahniuk is at his best. Convenient coincidences and ludicrous plot points can be overlooked for the sake of his carefully rendered picture of this rotting world in all its putrid glory. There is wisdom to be easily discovered here, and the story does nothing if not entertain.
Though the overall message may be overdone, it’s the smaller, more subtle ideas that really take hold of the reader in this novel. Voyeurism results in a loss of identity, a loss of soul for both the looker and the watched. This the reader already knows; Pynchon and DeLillo taught us well, but Palahniuk adds the fascinating dimension of self –consciousness, watching oneself being watched, which brings this novel up to speed in our reality-television-life-imitating-art imitating-life-etc. world. This novel is a thought provoking work, one which made me stop multiple times and consider the truth in Palahniuk’s words. Yes, his musings are not entirely new, and though I feel that any road trip through an America putrefied by greed pales in comparison to that in Lolita, I must applaud Palahniuk for saying something we may need to hear again and again.