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Onyx reviews: Tell All by Chuck Palahniuk

There are a few interesting, promising ideas lurking within the sparse pages of Tell All by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. First, there is the saga of Hazie Coogan, who has spent her entire life in the shadow of silver screen star Katherine Kenton, doing menial tasks for decades in support of another woman's career. Hazie is too homely and untalented to make it in the movie business, so she latches onto Katherine at an early age. The oft-married Katherine has been Coogan's entire life. Her work in progress. Destined to be her masterpiece.

Also promising and intriguing is the appearance on the scene of Webster Carlton Westward III, a fortune seeker who insinuates himself into Katherine's life. Hazie finds a manuscript among his belongings, a tell-all exposé of their tawdry affair that would be a guaranteed bestseller after Katherine dies. The book, titled Love Slave, is already complete, including a final chapter that details exactly how she will die. Each time Coogan and Katherine foil one of these schemes, a new final chapter replaces the old one, with Katherine dying in different, spectacular and improbable ways in each draft, always after she achieves the pinnacle of sexual satisfaction with Webster.

Finally, the scenes of Hazie etching Katherine's age spots and wrinkles into a mirror with Katherine's diamond ring bring to mind The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Unfortunately, these promising ideas are buried among gimmicks that might generously be called "experimental" but could more accurately be described as self indulgent. The brief book, a mere 180 small pages, is presented as a quasi-screenplay, broken into Acts and Scenes. Each one begins with a mis-en-scène, with elaborate stage and camera directions. "The scene begins with a tight shot of..." begins one chapter. Another starts, "In the establishing shot..."

Worse, Palahniuk tries also to emulate a tattletale tabloid. Every person's name (virtually every proper noun, in fact, including trade names) is bolded. The pages are littered with bold text, something Palahniuk himself describes as a "Tourette's syndrome of brand names." Occasionally these references are inexplicably prefaced by a triplet of animal sounds. ("Tweet, quack, growl...Veuve Clicquot.) Famous (and quasi-famous) names from the Golden Age of movie making are depicted in roles they never played. Katherine herself seems to have played every major female part ever created. It's a dog's lunch of name dropping and if it's meant to lampoon something, it misses the mark. Lillian Hellman is one of his prime targets, for reasons that are never made clear.

Pahalniuk adopts a jaunty tone, interjecting quips and puns that he puts into the mouths of other (usually famous) people. Some of them are witty (ex-husbands are called "was-bands"), but he goes overboard, and the cleverness soon wears thin. So, too, does Katherine's habit of uttering foreign phrases and immediately mis-translating them. ("Voilà!" she says. "That's Italian for prego.") The repeated, campy enactments of the schemes found in Love Slave quickly lose their charm, too.

Unexpectedly, the lengths Katherine takes to avoid the schemes so elaborately plotted out in Love Slave have a positive influence on her. She loses weight, and gives up cigarettes and booze. The color comes back into her cheeks. Dorian Gray, indeed. The book has a nice—though perhaps predictable—twist, but the admirable parts of the book are overwhelmed by the misguided experiment.

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