19 July 2010

The Cold Open (Guinea Pigs)

Books generally don’t have cold opens, which are a short teaser section before the titles roll. You could probably make a case for certain mass market genre novels that will throw a few paragraphs of suspenseful action from within the novel on the very first page of the book. (A practice that I recall from all of those cheesy AD&D novels I read when I was younger.) However, “Guinea Pigs,” the two-page chapter that follows the epigraph certainly feels like a teaser. It describes the basic premise of the novel, of a group of writers at an “isolated writers’ retreat” organized by an old man whose intentions end up being less than innocent, which makes for a nicely Gothic set-up.

Additionally, the narrator tells us that the writers gave each other pseudonyms, such as "The Matchmaker," "Lady Baglady" and "The Duke of Vandals." The narrator claims the nicknames are based on the sins or crimes or. It’s never clear exactly when, how or why these nicknames are determined, though perhaps there was a “Reservoir Dogs”-style meeting at some point. (“How come he gets to be a Duke but I’m stuck as an Earl?” “What are you talking about? An Earl is way higher than a Duke.” “No, you must be thinking of a Baron.”)

There are, of course, a couple of possible ways of reading this. If one were to take it at its most superficial level, it’s possible to see this as a twisted variation on the cast of characters of your typical slasher flick, which tends to feature characters easily identifiable as “The Jock, “The Nerd,” “The Rich Girl,” and so on. On another level, one keeping not only with the premise of “the opposite of superhero names” but also with the rest of Palahniuk’s oeuvre, these characters may be archetypes of a sort, the lost souls that haunt our contemporary world. The narrator describes them as:
Silly names for real people. As if you cut open a rag doll and found inside: Real intestines, real lungs, a beating heart, blood. A lot of hot, sticky blood.
It’s a brilliant description, and one that when I first read the book, gave me hope that the rest of the novel would manage a similar combination of the uncanny and the visceral. (The suggestion of the puppet as a stand-in for the human, in particular, recalls that modern master of the uncanny, Thomas Ligotti.)

One note on the narrator: This chapter and all subsequent chapters of the framing story are written from the first-person plural--that is the story is told by a “we.” It’s never spelled out who this “we” is but it’s pretty clear from the novel that it’s the collective voice of all (or almost all) of the writers. This is something of a departure for Palahniuk, whose previous novels, however experimental in some respects, were all narrated from the point of view of a single character.

I confess that even now, recollecting what I found frustrating or disappointing about the novel, I still find this opening quite effective. If nothing else, it's a crackerjack premise told with an economy that immediately leaves me wanting to read on.

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