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Palahniuk Goes for Shock, Ends Up with Shlock

'Tell All' by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday)

By Andrew F. Nunnelly, Crimson Staff Writer

Chuck Palahniuk’s fourth book in as many years, “Tell-All,” focuses on the mid-twentieth century world of celebrity, as seen through the eyes of an aging star’s personal assistant. The book is one part Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” one part “American Psycho,” and several parts not up to Palahniuk’s usual storytelling ability.

In most of the nearly dozen novels he’s published, Palahniuk has employed his unique, repetitive writing style to illuminate a hidden world—that of fight clubs, sex addicts, televangelists, pornstars, and so on. One of the pleasures of reading many of his books is asking oneself if his revelations involving drugs, sex, bombs, and world history are actually true.

With “Tell-All,” Palahniuk picks a subject with very little mystery left in it—Hollywood’s Golden Age and its decline. In a culture where the public is inundated with the 24-hour news cycle, paparazzi pulp, and celebrity gossip, an author is going to be hard pressed to capture an audience already exhausted with the idea of the tell-all tale, even if he is trying to lampoon it.

The book is narrated from the point of view of Hazie Coogan, the handler of aging actress and box office gold, Katherine Kenton. Though this pair is fictional, the world they occupy is full of real characters, although at the mercy of Palahniuk’s historical and anachronistic distortions. In the style of Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho,” Coogan’s narration is a constant barrage of brand names, celebrities, and historical references. The narrator self-consciously refers to this multiple times as “name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome,” and flipping through the pages, one sees that each and every name has been set in bold.

In the long run, this name dropping convention is frustrating because overall only about one of every three references are immediately identifiable by a modern audience. Here are just a few from one page: Stephen Boyd, Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, Natalie Wood, Frank Powell, D.W. Griffith, Joan Leslie, Tallulah Bankhead, H.B. Warner, Max Steiner, and Louise Brooks.

What becomes increasingly frustrating about this is that Palahniuk uses these references as he builds images of scenes and characters. Understanding his references will surely enhance one’s reading of the story, but the amount of research left to the lay reader is simply too daunting for such a short book. One could imagine a future edition containing a compendium of glosses in the back.

Palahniuk takes his time at the beginning of the novel introducing the character of Katherine Kenton, who seems like a cross between Katharine Hepburn, Angelina Jolie, Elizabeth Taylor, and Lindsay Lohan. In the narration, Coogan discusses her own endless maneuvering to manage Kenton’s movie-star image, calling the actress, “my work-in-progress,” and adding, “My job title is not that of nanny or guardian angel, but I perform duties of both.” The reader follows as she juggles Kenton’s drug use, serial marriages, and generally surreal behavior and lifestyle.

About halfway through, as the plot of the novel gets rolling, a young man, Webster Carlton Westward III, enters Kenton’s life with seemingly suspect intentions. Just as happens often today, Westward positions himself for the opportunistic memoir, the “tell-all” of the title. At this point, Palahniuk proves he still has the incredible ability to build suspense and surprise his reader with twists, though the story moves toward a fairly predictable end, given his hints earlier in the novel. The book ends with Palahniuk’s penchant for the macabre, though there is a redeeming twist or two in a fashion typical of his writing.

Where this book succeeds most is on the level of satire. Unlike in his previous books, Palahniuk does not show his readers a secret or paranormal world, but instead takes one especially familiar to most modern audiences and exaggerates its flaws to significant comic effect. For example in one scene, Katherine Kenton decides to adopt a child, and after an extended perusal of infants, she decides that none of them go with her newly painted walls. There is a similar kind of witty iciness throughout, which gives off the air of certain modern celebrities under the guise of a distant era.

The fact that there are traces of the frenzy around Angelina Jolie or the death of Michael Jackson in this novel certainly make it stronger, but Palahniuk needs to take his satire farther if he is going to be successful with it. He absolutely has the ability to make something over-the-top, but he needs to be more fantastical than he is in “Tell-All” when he is only at his most farcical when describing hilarious sex scenes.

Like most Palahniuk books, “Tell-All” will probably satisfy the core readership of his books, though even they may be disappointed by the lack of Chuck’s usual revelations. Since starting his career almost fifteen years ago, Palahniuk has been a champion of the groundbreaking and the avant-garde. Though “Tell-All” may have been groundbreaking 20 to 50 years ago, it seems unlikely that it will resonate as much with an audience today—one that feels it already knows too much about celebrities.

—Staff writer Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at

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