The Short Version: C. Linus Maxwell is the most notorious bachelor on the planet. A multi-billionaire and lover of some of the most famous women in the world. And somehow, Penny Harrigan, a low-level associate at the law firm representing his most recent breakup, has caught his eye. But once she’s with him, she discovers that he’s preparing a line of sex toys for women – and that his plans might not be so innocuous as pleasure…
The Review: I’m saying it now, with pleasure and more than a little sigh of relief: Chuck is back. He’s not back to the fighting weight of those early five or six books, but he’s dropped some of the weird affectations and returned to just doing what he does best. Which is writing a weird, visceral, punchy novel – in his voice. Yeah, there were glimmers of something interesting about Pygmy and Madison (narrator of Damned and Doomed) is not without her merits… but the less said about Snuff and Tell-All, the better. And the thing that remained true through all of these books is that Chuck was writing with affectations. He was trying out different things – whereas those early books, even up to Rant, they had different voices but they were all still identifiably CHUCK.
And so I found myself almost breathless as I started Beautiful You. Originally billed as a Fifty Shades of Grey rip, I had been worried – and the first third or so of this novel is absolutely a version of Fifty Shades written by an immensely more talented writer. But where that dreck turns into bondage porn, this is just… porn. Almost hilariously so. The conceit is that this guy, Maxwell (nickname in the tabloids: C-Li Maxwell), is not only a genius and good in the sack but he’s combined the two things to make this crazy-efficient series of sex toys called “Beautiful You”. And the final test before they go live ends up being Penny. And there are some crazy scenes of orgasmic adventures in this book – but as opposed to something like Tampa, where the sex is meant to both freak you out and turn you on (and, as a result, freak you out again), it doesn’t really do either here. There’s a level of almost scientific detachment that Chuck achieves here – which, if I’m being honest, feels like the point. A billionaire playboy philanthropist who takes detailed notes on his sexual partners and their reactions? Of course it’s gonna be a little clinical, on purpose.
The thing that feels far more like Chuck getting back to form is the weird, dangerous subplot that runs through the background of the novel – including a hilarious riff on a classic spy-movie encounter that takes place in the ladies’ room of a swank restaurant. I won’t ruin it further than that. But it’s so delightfully weird and the idea of a strange conspiracy floating behind all of this is just so bananas that you can’t help but enjoy it, conceptually. Even into the third act, when an old sex yogi joins the fray… the weirdness grows exponentially but without sacrificing the verve that Chuck seems to take from the writing of it. It feels like my weird friend Chuck telling me a story again – and god isn’t that fun.
Of course, it’s not ALL sunshine and rainbows. The third act does get a little ridiculous and the ending feels even a little too crazy for Chuck. And I think there are some larger issues raised here about the depiction of women in literature. Chuck pulls off some smart satire of consumer culture as well as the media’s relentless push to target products “to women” – so, you know, here’s lady LEGOs instead of just LEGOs for everyone. That sort of thing. But I do think that he misses the mark a couple of times with some of the action that Penny engages in during her one-woman crusade. I don’t want to spoil it but I’d be curious to discuss with folks the way they feel about it – as written by a man, as written by anyone, as an accurate-or-not reflection of culture. I don’t think he got it aggressively wrong (although I can see how folks might get turned off real quick by the opening seemingly-psychic-rape scene) but I’m also just not sure that he got it right.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I no longer feel like I have to make excuses for being a Palahniuk fan, which is maybe the best thing I can say about this. It’s far and away better than his recent oeuvre and while it still shows some serious flaws, I had fun reading a Palahniuk novel for the first time in a long time. It also goes to show: somebody talented could’ve written the hell out of Fifty Shades – but I’m glad Chuck didn’t just do a straight erotica novel. More unexpected this way, which is always a good thing when it comes to his work.