I found Tell-All to be a fine return to form for Palahniuk. Being Palahniuk, the book is, of course, gimmicky. He is Palahniuk, and gimmicky pastiche is the literary niche he's come to fill. But Tell-All is gimmicky with heart, soul and humanity – something I've found lacking in his previous two novels Snuff and Pygmy. I recall commenting to a friend that Snuff read like it had been written during a weekend-long cocaine binge, while Palahniuk seemed to have blown his wad on the pidgin patois in Pygmy, but I felt the patois detracted from the work rather than adding to it.
In Tell-All, there are a couple of voice gimmicks at work. First the boldface for names, which evokes the kind of typeface used in gossip columns. Second, the animal noises, which are intended to denote how shallow and meaningless conversation is among the two-dimensional people populating Katherine Kenton's world. The former worked well and melded into the text quickly. The latter was more obtrusive and perhaps repeated a bit too often. I'd venture that most of Palahniuk's readers are smart people and don't need to be hit over the head with the metaphor. He can be a bit heavy-handed, our Chuck.
Stylistic gimmicks aside, Palahniuk is doing some really interesting things in this book. On the surface, it's a commentary on old Hollywood, but it just as easily could be read as commentary on the celebrity-obsessed, vampiric, TMZ culture we're all soaking in today, where no one with even the smallest iota of fame escapes the lenses of the paparazzi or the acid-tongued snark of the bloggers who have replaced the Walter Winchells and Hedda Hoppers of old. In some ways, I think the books is nostalgic for the days when film stars were surrounded by a certain glamour and mystique, with the truth never being fully revealed until after their deaths. I'd argue movies held more magic in the days when we didn't know the intimate details of Angelina Jolie's ovulation cycle or when Megan Fox gets a bikini wax.
While the book certainly is a black comedy, it's also elegaic and rather ethereal, at least in the first half. There's a strong element of tragedy in the life of Katherine Kenton, a beautiful sadness in the cobwebs and the Dorian Gray-style mirror where narrator Hazie Coogan preserves the march of time on Kenton's face – ravages no other human will ever be allowed to see.
The second half drifts more into a very dark form of slapstick, with Kenton trying to dodge the increasingly ridiculous attempts on her life by her lover. The shifting tone of the book mirrors the change in Kenton's own life, as she morphs from ghostly has-been to a woman re-energized by the fear of death. The narrative itself is energized along with Kenton in the latter half. Definitely some smart writing going on here.
But perhaps the smartest writing lies in the layer of the book that's a sharp satire on the way humans metaphorically cannibalize each other, with notorious fabulist Lillian Hellman as the cannibal-in-chief. This thread works as an interesting piece of metanarrative, as Palahniuk does to Hellman that which Hellman is accused of doing by the characters in the book. The characters often pray to outlive Hellman so they never become fodder for her stories. Perhaps we should all pray to outlive Palahniuk.
Where the book works best – and works in a way Snuff and Pygmy didn't – is that it made me feel something for its characters: for poor, doomed, beautiful Katherine who so badly craved love; for homely, invisible Hazie who wanted to amount to something and was willing to kill; even for the idiot Webster, all root-beer brown eyes and slavish devotion to his idol. This ability to evoke feeling, to find something gorgeous and human in the midst of vanity, ugliness and decay, is why I fell in love with Palahniuk, why I continue to read his books. In this one, he doesn't disappoint.