In Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book men are made obsolete by sex toys — but ultimately, the women get punished TRACY CLARK-FLORY MONDAY, OCT 27, 2014 11:00 PM +0000
“A billion husbands are about to be replaced.” That is the tag line of a brand of wildly effective vibrators in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, “Beautiful You.” After the release of these innovative pleasure products, female characters start to make stereotypical battle-of-the-sexes proclamations like, “Men are obsolete!” and “Anything a man can do to me, I can do better!” and “This hunk of plastic is more of a man than you’ll ever be!” Women line up for miles and camp out overnight outside “Beautiful You” stores, hoping to get the latest toe-curling product before it sells out. Everywhere, fashionable, metropolitan “Sex and the City” types stomp around town in their stilettos, boldly carrying a bag bearing the brand’s logo, white curlicue lettering on a pink background, the new symbol of female empowerment. It’s the ultimate horror story for wounded little man-boys everywhere.
But then things take a darker turn: Women begin to drop out of public life entirely, locking themselves in their rooms, diddling away the hours. Their voices become sore from endless yelps of pleasure, their eyes sunken from lost sleep and their bodies weak and emaciated from skipped meals. “Missing” posters are pasted around town, as scores of women — mothers, sisters, daughters — disappear from their homes, driven mad by previously unknown pleasure. In a characteristically Palahniuk gotcha, it turns out that Beautiful You products are actually designed to control women’s consumer decisions.
This is what all of Palahniuk’s novels have been building up to, haven’t they? After all of the tales of disaffected men with mommy issues, here we have arrived at the ultimate expression of male disenfranchisement in our supposedly post-feminist age: men being replaced by vibrators.
Palahniuk takes great joy in writing about this fantastical post-apocalyptic world in which women’s sexual liberation is ultimately disempowering. Witness, for example, that the world’s foremost feminist organization is “on the brink of nonexistence.” He writes: “For the first time in its history the National Organization of Women was canceling its annual conference due to lack of participants. Six weeks ago the roster had been almost filled, but in the days since Beautiful You had launched, all of the delegates had canceled their plans to attend. Some cited more personal interests they wanted to pursue. The rest claimed to be exploring alternative avenues to self-fulfillment.” This fantastical allegory is awfully reminiscent of a favorite insult of male, anti-feminist trolls: You just haven’t been fucked right! If you just got a good lay, all that angry activism would disappear!
What at first seems a male nightmare brought to life ends up feeling much more like a story of male vengeance. Since most women have disappeared from the streets, the fear of rape seems to lurk at every corner for the female protagonist, 20-something Penny Harrigan, a rare woman who isn’t in the grips of Beautiful You and dares to venture into the public sphere full of “furious, obsolete penises.” In fact, Penny is raped, multiple times. The novel itself opens with a rape scene in which she is assaulted in public — via a high-tech device — and no one intervenes to help, because there are only men around. (And apparently all men are so furious about their obsolete penises that they can only stand by and watch.)
Palahniuk has referred to this book as the female “Fight Club,” but in truth, there is no comparison. “Beautiful You” won’t resonate with legions of women the way “Fight Club” did with men. That’s because it doesn’t address a female desire — even though it is, ostensibly, at least at first, about female pleasure. Instead, it is centered — just as with “Fight Club” and most of Palahniuk’s books — around extreme male anxiety. This is his specialty: the neuroses experienced by supposedly feminized, emasculated men in corporate, capitalist and “post-feminist” America.