The Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews
As strong as Andersen Prunty's voice and style are, and as engaging as the first 4-5 chapters of the book may be, Fuckness is overall kind of a let-down. It's a hyper-violent take on bildungsroman that never feels fully satisfying despite some great moments. On the plus side, it's well-paced and short, so I can't say that it outstays its welcome. I'd give it a light recommendation if you're in the mood for something like The Dirty Parts of the Bible, except you hate people.
My Rating: 3 / 5
The Bit Where I Describe the Plot
Wallace Black is a sixteen year-old with severe learning and emotional disabilities who lives in a small Ohio town. He's not exactly an idiot, but due to deep flaws in his capacity to relate to the world, he has failed the eighth grade for three years in the row and is now socially isolated. His abusive and neglectful parents have reached a point of frustration where they can no longer suffer him or his failures.
One day, he gets into a fight with a bully three years his junior at middle school, which provokes his parents to strap a set of horns to his head as a punishment. Wallace then undergoes a bizarre transformation. The ad copy for the book describes it as, "A power no one could have expected."
Translation: the horns fuse with his body (through physics that remain undefined) and essentially turn him into a literal demon who occasionally blacks out and kills people in horrifying, ultra-violent ways.
This part took me entirely by surprise. I'm not sure if Prunty meant for the murders and gore to be a secret for his readers to uncover, but there's a pretty jarring tonal shift after Wallace has his first Murder Freakout. Everything before it feels like an acerbic take on a coming-of-age story, but when the horns go on it takes a dramatic left-turn. Hell, "left" is way too soft; it's more like a 270-degree turn rotated twice on the horizontal axis so you end up flying out into space.
Anyway, the point is the post-horns segment drives the story into an outlandish world where anything is possible and nothing is grounded in reality. Wallace has moments of hallucination that may or may not be real, characters turn into cartoons, the world is upside-down, and, oh yeah, there's lots and lots of horrifically violent murder.
The Bit Where I Complain
This is about where I have my first complaint with the book. It's not the violence exactly. More that there wasn't enough indication in the book description that it was this extremely dark, upsetting, cruel tale of morbid, nihilistic destruction. It is called a "sometimes hilarious, sometimes violent gothic coming-of-age horror." I was definitely expecting something downbeat, but overall I was thinking it would be an absurd slice-of-life dark comedy. I guess technically it is, but when your protagonist is gouging out somebody's eyes by page 25, "dark comedy" doesn't really seem to cover it.
This makes the actual content and narrative arc (or lack thereof) all the more disappointing. Prunty is terrific at building empathy for his characters through minor quirks and the occasional tragedy. And he's got a great sense of observational humor. So when the violent escapades ensue, you keep expecting a punchline - or at the very least a conclusion.
But we never get that. Things just kind of happen. Occasionally you'll laugh, but mostly you'll just wonder if there's ever a point. There isn't.
I suppose you can make the argument that the lack of a point is the point, but that's a lame cop-out. Nihilism is fine as a philosophy, but it's shit for storytelling. A novelist always has a duty to put together something that's at least coherent enough to function as a story. Even if there ultimately is no point to Wallace's adventures, even if the overall message is that "nothing you do matters," even if you're just trying to communicate a feeling and a tone and you don't want to have a conventional beginning-middle-end sequence, you still need to get the basic structural concepts of story-telling in place so that a meathead like me can read it and go, "Oh, I get what you're doing here."
Fuckness never gets to a point where it feels like a real book. It always just feels like it's on the cusp of starting something. People have no purpose for doing the things they do and there's never an actual goal in sight. There's multiple points where the narrator literally says, "I don't know why I did it, but then I decided to go over here." By the time Wallace has his third freak-out, it's not even clear if the horns are actually part of the central conflict or not.
Contrast this with something that is also violent and nihilistic like No Country for Old Men. (Full disclosure: I've only seen the movie, so that's what I'm using as the basis.) Both stories involve characters who either bear witness to or cause horrific acts of violence. Both stories involve seemingly unrelated characters who crash into each other with unsatisfying conclusions. Both stories involve unresolved conflict. Both stories portray a cruel and unforgiving world. Both stories have an unconventional story structure. Neither story actually has an ending. Both stories contemplate the meaninglessness of life.
The difference is that No Country provides connectivity between its characters and forms clear cause-and-effect relationships. There is enough focus and purpose in what the characters actually do that you can take away some form of thematic resolution. Fuckness, on the other hand, feels like a bunch of disjointed nonsense.
It's like the difference between listening to an esteemed philosophy professor at your college describe the absurdity of existence versus listening to a schizophrenic bum in the park tell you how mushroom fairies are responsible for toast.
The Bit Where I Enjoyed the Comedy
Still, the book has one crucial thing in its favor: it is often hilarious. I can overlook quite a bit if I get a good laugh out of something. See also: my affection for They Came Together.
Wallace's understanding of the world is at once wise beyond his years and dangerously immature. For example, the book opens with him accepting a lollipop from his dearest friend, Drifter Ken. As the name implies, Ken is a homeless drifter who lives under an overpass. The lollipop ends up being the catalyst for a fight that breaks out on the playground at Wallace's school; yet while this is objectively a story about a dumb 16 year-old getting into a fight over candy with a 13 year-old, Prunty peppers in enough humor that it heightens the exchange to a metaphysical, existentialist discussion.
The interplay (or disconnect?) between Wallace's actions and his thoughts comprises most of the story. This is usually funny and leads to some excellent exchanges in dialogue. For example (paraphrasing):
"What's that on your horn?"
[Checks horn.] "Oh, that's an anus."
I wish the book had more of this. The only drawback to Wallace's introspection is that it frequently leads to meandering philosophizing, which - in light of all the stuff I complained about earlier - is significantly less interesting. The book works at its best when it's simply one screwed-up teenager's skewed interpretation of the world.
If you're interested in reading, you can buy a copy from Amazon or read it for free as part of their Unlimited service.