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NewCityNet See No Evil

By Shelly Ridenour

OCTOBER 4, 1999: 

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk (W.W. Norton) $13, 297 pages

Brandy Alexander is, physically and on the surface, at least, a walking, talking, heaving-silicone stereotype of transsexual diva-dom: Six-plus feet of auburn-tressed queen bee fabulousness who never goes outside without her Aubergine Dream and Burning Blueberry (cosmetics, don't you know) in place, a "honey pie"-crooning whirling dervish of peplums and bustiers, satin and chiffon, Dexedrine and Darvocet.

She's also one operation away from becoming a "real" woman. She may or may not be the presumed dead brother of anti-heroine/former model/hideously disfigured "monster" Shannon McFarland. And she's certainly the brightest light -- a shiny shiny toy to distract you from the showing seams -- in "Invisible Monsters," the latest novel by writing risktaker Chuck Palahniuk ("Fight Club," "Survivor").

Palahniuk is either crazy or genius -- his wildly inventive and incomparably entertaining plotlines are from so far left field they might as well be lobbed from outer space; his language is quick and clever and impossibly honest and nasty (serrated, not graphic); his style -- this time jumping through chronological time like a nervous whippet -- breaks all rules and conventions, like he never even learned them. And his characters aren't so much likable as begrudgingly infectious, plasti-beautiful; not so much contradictions of crazy and genius as crazy and cursed with extreme swings of fate.

"Invisible Monsters" is a soap opera wrapped in a mystery, an engima swaddled in a Bret Easton Ellis nightmare. We follow narrator Shannon from the day her jaw is shot off in what seems like an act of road rage back to her seemingly glam B-model life with a preening vice cop boyfriend who may or may not be bi, forward to a chance hospital meeting with lady-in-waiting Princess Brandy, back to her attention-starved childhood, forward to seething acts of revenge exacted on those who steal the limelight -- siblings, friends, lovers, whatever. It all eventually leads to discoveries and revelations, usually of the laugh-out-loud shocking variety, and along the way we're taken on a hysterical road trip with Shannon, Brandy and Alfa Romeo (aka Chase Manhattan, aka Nash Rambler, aka Wells Fargo, aka maybe-or-maybe not the preening vice cop boyfriend) -- the short-term goal of which is to hit real estate open houses in search of drugs and fancy cosmetics; the long-term goal, of course, is exposing the truth, no matter how ugly it might be.

Reading the book is great, giddy fun -- it's easy to be sucked in, over your head before you know it, swimming in the language like so much alcohol. Problem is, the beer goggles always eventually wear off; you see that last night's beauty queen is this morning's wrinkled hodgepodge of spackle and silicone, platforms and extensions. Shannon is not an ultimately satisfying narrator, and the whole mess leaves you a little itchy with unanswered questions, nauseous from the too-neat turns. In a weird way, it's like Palahniuk has lived out his own message: little in life is what it seems, or promises. Still, his social analysis through a fish-eye lens is rare and remarkable, and I'm hungrily awaiting the next twist of fate.

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