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Short Takes

TELL-ALL By Chuck Palahniuk

TELL-ALL By Chuck Palahniuk

By Amanda Heller
June 13, 2010

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Chuck Palahniuk fans expecting something dark and dangerous from the author of “Fight Club” are likely to greet “Tell-All” with some consternation. More a stunt than a novel, it is set, more or less, in the golden age of celebrity and studded with vintage boldface names (Tallulah Bankhead! Walter Winchell! the Russian Tea Room! the Herald Tribune!), printed mockingly in actual boldface type. Lillian Hellman keeps popping up like an untamed cowlick, relating bizarre, self-aggrandizing adventures and generally calling attention to herself.

The novel’s narrator is Hazie Coogan, longtime personal assistant to the aging screen goddess Katherine Kenton. Fierce as Cerberus, Hazie considers herself the sole creator and guardian of “Miss Kathie’s” legendary persona. Unhinged she may be, but her possessive instincts seem justified when the classic too-good-to-be-true gigolo makes his entrance and sweeps the well-preserved star off her feet. Plot twists lie ahead, however, and miles more of those boldface names, most as faded now as the mementos in Miss Kathie’s oft-visited family crypt.

“Tell-All” has the distinct air of an inside joke, a snarky postmodern “Sunset Boulevard.” Clever at first, this arch satire soon wears as thin as its comic-book characters.

Meghan Daum has a bad case of gypsy feet. Ever since college, when she switched rooms constantly, always hoping that the next one would be the charm, the key to the ideal undergraduate experience, she has remained on the move. No sooner does the deposit clear on her latest digs than she’s out the door again, dissatisfied, obsessively changing her accommodations instead of changing the discontented person who occupies them.

In her 20s, Daum bounced from one mean little New York City walk-up to another, all equally incommodious and “mildew-scented.” She abandoned her big city ambitions for Lincoln, Neb., figuring that it would be cheaper to feed her real estate cravings there. Finally she ended up in Los Angeles, hopscotching between rentals until, at the height of the housing bubble, she overpaid hugely for a tiny hillside fixer-upper, her first consummated act of homeownership.

In between U-Haul trips, Daum is a newspaper columnist in L.A., the national capital of the vertical pronoun. She has found her niche. But there’s a gulf of difference between introspection and narcissism. Not until the end does the book grow a heart. Finally it’s about something other than herself.

Sexually adventurous even at 16, Suzanne, the narrator of this novel by Maureen Gibbon, paid for her recklessness with a vicious, degrading assault. Now in her early 30s, Suzanne has made victimization a way of life. Unable to trust or to love, she chooses men who aren’t worthy of her, men she can use for sex without emotional involvement. It’s a losing game, though, since men play it so much better.

A schoolteacher, Suzanne has retreated for the summer to a cabin in northern Minnesota to recover from her most recent toxic relationship. Alone and brooding, she gives in to the mother of all bad ideas when a personals ad leads her to a prison inmate who turns out to be a convicted rapist. Increasingly she is drawn into his seductive, disturbing fantasies. As usual, she thinks she’s in control. As usual, she’s wrong.

Suzanne’s plight is apparently more than a little bit autobiographical. We sympathize with Gibbon personally, but “Thief’’ is a novel, not a memoir of surviving rape. In real life we are free to behave as irrationally as we please. In fiction, however, willful stupidity is poison to the empathy a reader wants and needs to feel for the protagonist.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at ahellerst@gmail.com.

LIFE WOULD BE PERFECT IF I LIVED IN THAT HOUSE

By Meghan Daum

Knopf, 256 pp., $24

THIEF

By Maureen Gibbon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pp., paperback, $14