Stealing Beauty

The Beauty Myth Goes Under The Knife In Chuck Palahniuk's 'Invisible Monsters.'

Invisible Monsters, by Chuck Palahniuk (Norton). Paper, $13.

QUESTION: WHEN IS a supermodel more than just a pretty face?

Answer: When half of that perfect face is horribly blown away in a freakish highway shootout, causing said supermodel to wrestle with society's oppressive standards of beauty while careening wildly across the country seeking revenge on her mysterious assailant.

In Chuck Palahniuk's mordantly comic and thought-provoking new novel, Invisible Monsters, the picaresque adventures of a Cosmo Girl given an unexpected "monster make-over" form the basis for an unlikely collision between the philosophical search for self and a wildly over-the-top melodrama bursting with sex, violence, and flaming designer gowns.

With his debut work, the cult novel Fight Club, Portland auto mechanic-turned-novelist Palahniuk carved a niche for himself among young contemporary novelists as a ruthlessly inventive social commentator, a postmodern Jonathan Swift who seemed frighteningly assured as he surfed on a raft of visciously poetic wordplay between social critique, pitch-black humor and grotesque surrealism. In Invisible Monsters, Palahniuk proves that the cultural terrorist sensibility which fueled Fight Club is still intact.

Gleefully lampooning both trashy soap operas and lovers-on-the-run sagas, the novel spins the whacked-out story of the aforementioned, unnamed, disfigured supermodel who races across the county with her murderous, sexually confused ex-boyfriend and a pre-op transexual named Brandy Alexander as she seeks vengance on Evie, the evil "big-boned" model from Texas whom she believes caused her face-altering accident. Along the way, the trio support their drug habits by posing as prospective home buyers in order to steal prescription drugs from the houses they visit, all the while enaging in various forms of unwholesome sexual highjinks. Luckily, however convoluted it may become, the plot functions merely as a gaudy skeleton upon which Palahniuk hangs a venomous satire of shallow image worship, the constructed nature of identity, and blind social conformity.

Throughout, the author wisely keeps his hapless, unnamed heroine ambiguous enough to function as a cipher for his swipes at our image-obsessed culture. Revered all her life for her stunning beauty, the heroine is forced after her accident to confront the fact that she has based her entire identity on a consumer-based facade. A triumph of style over substance, she is literally a mask hiding nothing underneath. When this identity is brutally ripped away by a blast of lead and gun powder, she becomes the "invisible monster" of the book's title -- once gawked at for her lusciousness, now so hideous that people refuse to acknowledge her existence. As she glides through the novel swathed in black face veils and designer duds, her mutilated vocal chords able to emit only strangled gibberish, she becomes a high fashion Phantom of the Opera, and her cross-country journey of righteous revenge mutates into a metaphorical search for an identity not available for purchase at Bloomingdale's.

Palahniuk's delight in brutally juxtaposing superficial beauty with its underlying hideousness becomes a recurrent motiff in several hilariously over-the-top set pieces, such as a horrifying fashion shoot staged in a slaughterhouse, or the heroine's late-night rampage through the lobby of a posh hotel. Angrily emerging from a torrential rainstorm, her "face without a jaw, with its throat just ending in a sort of hole with the tounge hanging out" fully exposed, wielding a double barreled shotgun, and wearing nothing but the still-smoldering remnants of a burnt feather boa and a mangled Frederick's of Hollywood nightie, she terrorizes the hotel's snooty patrons, her outlandish visage clashing comically with her luxurious surroundings.

As the heroine and her cohorts hurtle toward their date with destiny, dark secrets are revealed, and their carefully constructed exteriors begin to rupture and regenerate, unearthing a world where no one and nothing is as it seems. Surface identites become ephemeral and arbitrary, as easily discarded as a polyester pantsuit. The specter of our heroine's presumed-dead gay brother (whose face, coincidentally, was destroyed by an exploding can of hairspray) looms ominously over the group, forging their destiny. This web of ever-morphing sexual identities and bed-hopping configurations gives way to Palahniuk's playful deconstruction of gender politics, and gives him a chance to wallow in some luridly bizarre "Dalì-Does-Dallas" soap opera shenanigans.

The author's need to question ideology on a narrative level is paralleled throughout by his often deliriously inventive writing style. Prose erupting in rapid bursts of flashbacks and flashforwards creates a frenetically breakneck pace, allowing no two passages to follow one another in temporal order, and creating a disorienting chinese box of a novel that folds into itself then bursts out in new directions on every page. He also agitates on a sentence level through hypnotically repetitive rythmns, digressive asides, and often brutally terse phrasing, creating an overlapping pattern of wordplay that builds irrevocably into the climactic release of the novel's fiery conclusion. Throughout, Palahniuk's style cleverly mimics his analysis of identity, as the flashy surface of his writing veils the deeper meanings imbedded within the text. This abrasive approach never allows readers to gently immerse themselves in the world of the novel; rather, it downloads meaning directly into the brain in a throbbing, jarring mass of prose and imagery. This isn't always comfortable, and the fragmented narrative eventually begins to wear thin, but it's always compellingly innovative.

For all of Palahniuk's prickly social commentary and stylistic weirdness, he ultimately allows his embattled heroine a suprisingly poignant conclusion, as she discovers her true self amongst the violently campy excess of the story's chaotic finale, which somehow manages to be both completely logical and utterly implausible. Like its memorable leading lady, Invisible Monsters exposes the contradictions of modern-day identity and succeeds in uncovering truth in a world hell bent on maintaining illusions.

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