Chuck Palahniuk, Tell-All

Posted by Liam Dodds on October 28, 2010 in Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Chuck Palahniuk, Tell-All. Jonathan Cape, 2010. ISBN: 978-0224087155

Reviewed by Liam Dodds, University of Stirling

Chuck Palahniuk’s Tell-All is a depraved examination of identity set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Part-noir thriller, part-historical fiction, the narrative explores the immaculate public image and macabre twisted private reality of the bygone Hollywood elite. The narrator, Hazie Coogan, is the long-suffering personal assistant to the unstable Katherine Kenton, the once acclaimed movie star now resigned to brief cameos and isolation in her mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Hazie’s purpose is to act as a “surrogate spine” to the alcohol-abusing, neurotic Kenton, “to impose order on Miss Kathie’s chaos … to instill discipline in her legendary artistic caprice”.

Currently the regular duties of my position include defrosting Miss Kathie’s electric icebox and ironing her bed linens, yet my position is not that of a laundress. My career is not as a cook. Nor is domestic servant my vocation. My life is far less steered by Katherine Kenton than her life is by me.

In the style of trashy, gossip-columns, or contemporary celebrity-obsessed bibles, the text is littered with emboldened actors, texts, movies, characters, directors, and products: “Kay Francis hasn’t arrived. Humphrey Bogart didn’t send his regards. Neither did Deanna Durbin or Mildred Coles. Also missing are George Bancroft and Bonita Granville and Frank Morgan. None of them sent flowers”. The “veritable Tourette’s syndrome of rat-tat-tat name dropping, from the A-list to the Z-list”, which echoes Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho or Glamorama, demonstrates the transient nature of celebrity, whilst introducing the text’s exploration of identity.

To see how I walk, watch Ann Dvorak walk across the street in the film Housewife. You want to see me worried, watch how Miriam Hopkins puckers her brow in Old Acquaintance. Every hand gesture, every bit of physical business I ever perfected, some nobody came along and stole. Pier Angeli’s laugh started out as my laugh. The way Gilda Gray dances the rumba, she swiped it from me. How Marilyn Monroe sings she got by hearing me.

Analogous to the first chapter of Lunar Park, where narrator Bret Easton Ellis is constructed through the reproduction of scathing press-coverage, characters in Tell-All are constructed through the reproduction of intertextual references. The narrator, Hazie Coogan, constructs herself through reference to actors, characters, or scenes from Hollywood’s silver screens: “I was Thelma Ritter before Thelma Ritter was Thelma Ritter”. The intertextual references further demonstrate the transient nature of celebrity, as actors play actors play actors as their fame wanes or lives end. Moreover, the intertextual references question the ownership of identity. Hazie Coogan’s identity relies on her association to Katherine Kenton, thus, as gentleman caller Webster Carlton Westward III threatens to steal her mistress’ heart, Hazie is forced to act in order to preserve her self. Coogan’s purpose to protect her own position is expediated as she discovers Webster has written a sexually explicit, celebrity tell-all memoir that foretells the death of Kenton. As Hazie and Miss Kathie thwart Webster’s apparent attempts on Kenton’s life, Westward must subsequently redraft his, increasingly lurid, kiss-and-tell memoirs: new drafts of the memoir’s last chapter foretell Katherine’s grisly death in various accidents Webster hopes to contrive.

An amalgam of intertextual references, portrayed by actors, subsumed by her roles, her life portrayed by narrator, Hazie Coogan, and exploited by Webster’s memoirs, Katherine Kenton represents contemporary loss of identity. The iconic public image of Katherine Kenton is maintained by endless surgery. Hazie is required to record Katherine’s private image, tracing the lines of her miserable life onto her reflection “for prosperity”.

Creating something more cumulative than any photograph, I document Miss Kathie’s misery before the plastic surgeons can once more wipe the slate clean. Dragging the diamond, digging into the glass, I etch her gray hairs. Updating the topography of this, her secret face. Cutting the latest worry lines across her forehead. I gouge the new crow’s-feet around her eyes, eclipsing the false smile of her public image.

The “mirror of Dorian Gray” represents contemporary loss of identity. The mirror could be said to represent the true face of Katherine Kenton, portraying her faults, experiences and tears. However, the private image is concealed from her audience. Thus, the face of Katherine Kenton, although serially assaulted by the surgeon’s knife, represents the true face of Katherine Kenton: the public image is the recognised, iconic, image of the celebrity. Captured on screen, the public image is immortal. Therefore, juxtaposed against the “celebrity mentionitis” which represents the transient nature of celebrity, is the notion that celebrity is eternal: illustrated through the setting of the narrative in the Golden Age of Hollywood, where references to Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles and Jacqueline Kennedy remain resonant in contemporary society.

Nevertheless, the narrative renders the ownership of identity problematic. The narrator attempts to own the private image of Katherine, whilst Webster attempts to expose this private image. The immemorial public image of Kenton is not her own, it is manipulated, interpreted, and artificial: sustainable only through repeated acts of surgery. Although the characters pursue a notion of true identity, identity exists in a simulacrum. Reflective of Baudrillard’s ‘culture of death’, where in pursuit of authentic identity the subject is forced to pursue an identity associated with death, the haunting presence of death revitalises Kenton: “the constant threat of violent death sculpts Katherine Kenton down to tensed muscle […] Roses bloom in the cheeks of Miss Kathie. Her violet eyes sparkle, alert for sudden danger”.

The narrative is at once an assault on, and an affair with, celebrity. The vacuous Kenton attempts to adopt a child, but before doing so must compare the infant’s cheek to a paint swab lest the child should clash with the newly painted nursery. Yet, the endless, sycophantic, life-time achievement awards, where “superannuated stars earn applause for simply not dying”, are (almost) portrayed with sympathy. Furthermore, the narrative concludes rather mournfully as the true nature of the relationship between the characters is revealed.

Thus, Tell-All, replete with Chuck’s idiosyncratic quirks, is vintage Palahniuk.

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