FROM A NIHILISTIC MANIFESTO in Fight Club to a story born of pure rage in Lullaby, Chuck Palahniuk's best writing has displayed sharp wit, clever wordplay, rich characters, subversive content, and functional gimmicks. Most notably, he's shown a superb ability to manicure the grotesque without coming across as though he's trying to shock you. Some of the elements that make Palahniuk a pop/cult literary hero occasionally show their face in Tell-All, but what's missing are those rich characters, the uncomfortable moments, those functional gimmicks. In the end, the book falls flat on its unconventional face.
In this fictional-biography/novel/screenplay/hybrid, Palahniuk retells stories from the life of playwright Lillian Hellman. But the novel adds little: Hellman's life is abundantly interesting on its own. Scandal, political fires, professional success, and controversy surrounded Hellman throughout her career. Her own memoirs stand strong on their own two crazy feet (she even admitted she couldn't remember what was true and what wasn't). It's kind of like Pimp My Ride's Xzibit putting a car inside your car so you can drive while you drive.
Palahniuk packs the book with allusions to old Hollywood big shots, political references, and cultural happenings—references like Cordell Hull (a Nobel Peace Prize-winning politician), Jean Negulesco (a filmmaker from the golden era of Hollywood), and the Siege of Atlanta (a battle fought in the Civil War). These carefully inserted and often obtuse nods will leave many readers feeling alienated from a central theme of the book: the vapid existence of a Hollywood phony, name dropping like a parrot asking for a cracker.
It's obvious Palahniuk had a lot of fun writing this book—it's well researched, and very clever. Unfortunately Tell-All is just not very fun to read. The book is too subtle, deflated, and lacking in some of the trademarks that make Chuck so interesting to follow. Maybe Palahniuk is trying to grow and make a new recipe by ditching several of his key ingredients. If so, it doesn't work. This is a much more safe and self-indulgent Chuck. This Chuck is piloting a gimmicky and herky-jerky vehicle that nose-dives straight into tedium roughly 13 pages in. Fanboys and girls stay back. This is not the Chuck Palahniuk you know and love.