Style over substance in Palahniuk`s new `Tell-All`

New York, May 25: Chuck Palahniuk is one of modern American fiction`s most interesting stylists, and he`s at it again in his latest novel, "Tell-All."

It`s a slim book based on a kernel of an idea the author was left with after hearing stories about the fabrication of Lillian Hellman`s memoirs.

Billed as "the hyperactive love child of Page Six and `Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?` caught in a tawdry love triangle with `The Fan,`" "Tell-All" is a farcical send-up of American culture of the last century.

Written as a screenplay about the life of fading movie star Katherine Kenton, "Tell-All" is at its heart the story of the relationship between Kenton and her maid, Hazie Coogan. Coogan claims to play Henry Higgins to Kenton`s Eliza Doolittle, orchestrating all the actress` great moments.

Chasing off gold-digging suitors is among the maid`s self-appointed duties, but the latest paramour in Kenton`s life appears to have more in mind than hanky-panky. He`s written his own tell-all book about the love affair, complete with a very unhappy ending meant to spur book sales.

There`s not much more to the plot. It`s wafer-thin and almost secondary to a literary high-wire act Palahniuk pulls off for the most part.

The story is written much like a Page Six entry, right down to the bolded names. There`s name-dropping and dishing as Palahniuk tries to recreate the trappings of a bygone era. Hellman spins in and out of the picture, always in the midst of a preposterous story that puts her at the center of some of the 20th century`s most important events.

At times it`s a masterful feat. The question, however, is will his readers really get it? Palahniuk`s audience skews young, male and fervent, and he`s tested those fans lately.

His last novel, "Pygmy," was written completely in a kind of pidgin English that is challenging (and eventually rewarding once mastered). The obstacle in "Tell-All" is that most of the names being dropped belong to people who had their 15 minutes of fame 50 years ago, and without a passing knowledge of yesteryear`s celebs, the humor can be lost in translation.

At the same time, the ease with which he seems to pull all this off leaves readers with a question: What will Palahniuk pull off next? And that`s really all an author can ask.


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