“The glory of being a writer,” says Chuck Palahniuk, “is that when you mess up really badly, you’re able to transform it into something that works out.”

The Fight Club author —who is in Toronto this week to promote his new novel, Pygmy — is referring to a faux pas he made on German national radio a few years back: Eschewing the services of a translator, he accidentally conflated two German verbs and ended up offending an entire national listening audience.

“The publicist who was accompanying me was just furious,” he recalls. “She told me that I had said ‘I’m sorry I have gassed so many German people to death.’ And that I had apparently said it several times.”

The eponymous narrator of Pygmy is similarly lost in translation: The novel is told from the point of view (and the fractured syntax) of a thirteen-year old boy from an unnamed totalitarian state who has come to America as part of an elaborate terrorist plot. Pygmy’s plan to explode his new home bumps up against his burgeoning affection for his new foster sister, a development that enables Palahniuk to deploy some slyly double-sided satire; for Pygmy, America may be a “hive of corruption” but it’s also a space of great temptation.

“I wanted to make fun of people who are rah-rah super patriots and who think that the country can do no wrong, while also covering the people who think that America is the most evil entity on Earth, like the Devil Incarnate,” says Palahniuk.

“Whether you’re talking about George W. Bush or Michael Moore, there’s an incredible self-obsession. You know: ‘We’re the best!’ Or: ‘We’re the worst!’ Either way, it’s still all about us, right? Those extremes just irritate the hell out of me.”

Palahniuk knows all about his extremes: He’s been praised and condemned in the past for pushing the envelope with regards to content, and Pygmy is perhaps his most aggressive provocation yet, its sex and violence rendered somehow more visceral via its narrator’s fractured syntax. Not that this was necessarily foremost on the author’s mind: “My goal,” explains Palahniuk, “was actually to make the ‘ordinary stuff’ special. Everybody knows what a Wal-Mart is or what a Mega Church is, so it was about reinventing them, so that we see them again, with Pygmy. And it also takes back a sense of confidence from the reader. They have to stay in the present moment, because they’re always in an act of translation.”

Book reading

• Chuck Palahniuk is appearing at the Isabel Bader Theatre tomorrow to read from Pygmy. Tickets are $10. For event details visit www.mcnallyrobinson.com/toronto-events.

 
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