I’m having a little difficulty in thinking of how to start this review, not because Snuff was a difficult read by any means, but more because there is no way in which I can say what I want to without sounding terribly desensitized. So I’m just going to come out and say it;
Snuff was not what I expected.
This is not to say that it was a let down, at all (I enjoyed it rather a lot, make of that what you will), but rather that the title connotes something a little more extreme than I found inside. A little context, look away now if you would like. I won’t bother linking to the Wikipedia entry, mostly because it is not safe for school or work. Essentially, ‘snuff’ is a film genre in which an actual murder is depicted; not fancy Hollywood special effects, a living, breathing human being murdered on film. If one was to watch a snuff film, they would be watching a person die … needless to say, as murder is a punishable crime, these films are not exactly part of a mainstream genre.
Now what does this have to do with the novel, other than the title? What does it even have to do with the review? Well, first, let me make it clear that I did not buy this book based solely on the title, as it suggests something rather different than the actual content. That said, I didn’t buy the book based on this, either. I was feeling particularly gutsy at the time I made The Reading List #1, and wanted to read Snuff before those guts went away (no pun intended). The context that snuff films are used in throughout Snuff is in pornography; Wikipedia won’t cover this, although there is evidence to suggest that this is a subgenre that exists. The shameful, shocking fact of the matter is that some of pornography floating around the Internet can actually tend be a lot worse than snuff films are; here, in Snuff itself, there is no mention of brutal murder, but rather the insinuation that Cassie Wright, the woman all the novel’s narrators (apart from Sheila) are here to have sex with on camera, may even just die accidentally.
The story is told through the eyes of four characters in particular; Mr. 600 (or Branch Bacardi), a seasoned porn actor seemingly reaching the end of his career; Mr. 137, a former prime-time television star intending to act in the film to out himself as straight after an adult movie from his past surfaced, ending his career; Mr. 72 (Darin Johnson), a nineteen-year-old who believes that he is the son porn actress Cassie Wright gave up for adoption and Sheila, Cassie’s personal assistant and talent wrangler on-set, tasked with the job of keeping six-hundred men in check. I’ll take a moment to explain the plot, because none of the former makes much sense without it. Porn actress Cassie Wright is looking to set a new world record, by having sex with six-hundred men on camera – we quickly learn that she was impregnated during the filming of her debut, and that the money this record-breaking film makes will all go to her child, a boy she put up for adoption nearly twenty years ago, in an attempt to make things right between them. When I picked Snuff up, I didn’t expect there to be so much emphasis on the theme of mothers and sons, but there is, to quite and extent.
There is much more emotional depth than the title, or even the synopsis suggests, and to an extent, more of an engagement with the characters than I initially thought would be possible. In true Palahniuk style, almost everything is described in vivid, brutal detail, but only the things that might make your stomach churn; the idea of six hundred men sharing the same, small toilet should give you enough of an idea to go on. Interspersed between these are small snippets of movie and pop-culture trivia – what could be small facts, such as Marilyn Monroe cutting one oh her high heels shorter than the other to give the desired effect on her rear as she walked, or Lucille Ball letting her hair grow down the sides of her face, wrapping it around toothpicks and pulling the hair back, effectively giving herself a face-lift without surgery, albeit an agonizing one. Things like this, that seem so absurd they may just have happened (a number that I know are facts due to being an ex-film student).
It would be easy enough to dismiss this as a novel solely about the porn industry, or about sex in general, or a sweeping indictment of popular culture. It is not. The one thing that is far more prevalent than the trivia about pornography, or films in general, or the gristly ‘behind the scenes’ moments is the emphasis placed on relationships. Relationships between parents and children, first and foremost, but also the relationships formed in a day, in an instant, or the relationships based on what almost seems to be nothing. Mistrust, and essentially, lies. Or the relationships that are ruined forever in a split second, by way of one small secret getting out, that influences far more important choices. This is what I, personally, felt Palahniuk was getting at with this novel. That is not to say that I am right, but this is what I took away from the experience of reading it. Where I went into it apprehensively, not fully knowing what to expect and holding my breath, I came out of it realizing the relationships illustrated were more touching than I had initially considered they would be.
Of course, another thing that Palahniuk is undoubtedly getting at is the damaged nature of society – perhaps the most disturbing thing about reading Snuff was that it caused me to re-evaluate myself as both a person, and a reader, to an extent. I read and reread it, and yet, I didn’t find myself shocked in the sense that I was unable to believe some of the things mentioned actually existed. I met much of the subject matter with a weary kind of acknowledgment, but maybe this is just a side-effect of being a twenty-first century teenager; maybe I am exactly the kind of person that Palahniuk was aiming a hefty kick at when writing this. We’re too far gone to see exactly what is wrong. This is the underlying message, rather than the projected one, and indeed, it is easy enough to miss – I missed it almost entirely during my first reading, possibly because I was still trying to come to terms with the fact that this was not what I had expected. I do love it when a book takes me by surprise, however.
I could go on, of course, on and on about how so many of the shocking things the reader can be exposed to in Snuff are actually quite real. Whether it is immediately apparent or not, there are some extreme tongue-in-cheek moments, not counting every single mention of porn pun titles which are, in some cases, explained by the various narrators. While this review hasn’t exactly been PG so far, I think I can spare you all some examples lifted directly from the text; indeed, there is no way in which to write a PG review of a Palahniuk novel, or at least, I have yet to find a way. The changing perspectives, also, were of course, something I have found useful to look into due to my own work on Free Fall; the four voices are all at once very similar, but also very different. After the second reading, I found myself able to effectively pin-point which character was speaking without having to refer back to the chapter ‘headings’, there are always certain mannerisms, signs, that point towards which of them are speaking, the most obvious being short phrases that occur regularly throughout; Mr. 600 referring to everyone as ‘dudes’, Mr.137’s ‘wouldn’t you know it?’, Mr. 72’s ‘I don’t know’ and Sheila making frequent use of the phrase ‘true fact’, which is usually preceded by some variation of the aforementioned Hollywood trivia.
Make no mistake, reading Snuff is not a task that should be entered into lightly; there are stomach-churning moments, and events that will simply make you cringe and almost weep with embarrassment for the characters … this is all without mentioning the shocking ending that I am not going to reveal or spoil for anyone. What I will say, however, is that it featured an event that I would have never thought possible. Intestines being sucked out, I can understand, I’ve heard that one before. Being boiled alive in a hot spring, not so implausible. Snuff’s finale, however, is something I never considered, though this is most likely because it’s not particularly one of those things you tend to think about late at night. It’s not something that immediately comes to mind when considering the finer points of human intimacy (or carnality as the case may be).
For the most part, I haven’t found Snuff to be immensely well-received, but it does have its advocates. In case it isn’t immediately obvious, I am an advocate myself, but this is not unusual – I tend towards the things that other people are opposed to, or repulsed by, or quite simply, hate. It’s something I’ve been doing for years. Much of the emphasis of many of the reviews I have read has been on the fact that it is set during the filming of a pornographic movie, rather than what I feel the novel’s actual content is … a shame, or possible denial, and indeed, it is very easy, while reading, to launch directly into denial. It is almost sinfully easy to flick from page to page and proudly think to myself, ‘I’ve never watched anything quite as messed up as that‘, even though the fact remains that this is, most likely, untrue. Whether it be pornography or gore, or anything else on this spectrum, sometimes denial is the only real way of admitting to over indulgence.
Denial like Mr.72’s refusal to consider the fact that he is unable to return home purely because of his own choices, until after his money shot.
Like Mr.137 starring in an all-male porn film to prove that his father didn’t molest him.
Like what seems to be Mr.600’s entire life, or at the very least, his inability to accept that the withered shadow of a porn star that he is watching on screen is him, only five years prior to the shoot he is about to partake in.
Snuff is not really an examination of why men and women alike choose to shoot these films. Why websites I won’t mention here do so well, and make so much money. One thing it is impossible to deny is that it does look at society as a collective, but rather in what is no longer there – how we seem to have lost some combination of our compassion, humanity, or our capacity to recognize how wrong some things really are. It takes into consideration the notion of freedom of choice, not so much how free our choices are, but whether or not to point out to a grown adult that they are doing something wrong. I was most at ease when reading this, when I was considering others rather than myself; when I was considering why the characters act in the ways they do, and when their motives started to make more sense according to their back stories. I wasn’t so comfortable when I was forced to acknowledge that yes, as a reader, I most likely am one of those people who is beyond help.
The Final Summary:
Palahniuk is, of course, true to form here. From a personal standpoint, Snuff is not X-Rated, but it is easy to see why it would be. This is nothing new, of course; much like Haunted, this is not for the weak of stomach or will, and the ending is, quite literally, shocking – a visceral image that stayed with me from finishing my first read through to finishing my second, where it stunned me slightly less because I knew what was going to happen. This book is not a read for everyone, but is interesting enough if you’re a Palahniuk fan, or looking for something disturbingly different.
A Few Links: