Less macho than most of Palahniuk's work, this Cinderella-with-sex-toys parable is the transgressive writer's attempt at a feminist (or post-feminist) novel.
Ever since he debuted with Fight Club (1996), the prolific Palahniuk has built a cult following by taking a series of provocative ideas and pushing them to the limit. And then past the limit. Here, the gimmick is a series of sex products designed for women, so effective that one satisfied customer exclaims, “Men are obsolete!...Anything a man can do to me, I can do better!” Women disappear from the public sphere to pleasure themselves in private, leaving “[a] world of furious, obsolete penises.” Though sex saturates the novel, its description is more clinical than libidinous, and the protagonist isn't focused only on one thing. Penny Harrigan is something of an all-American girl, an obedient daughter who has moved from Nebraska to work in a New York law firm. She idolizes the nation’s first female president and is told by the man who will change her life—and the course of the world—“I love you because you’re so average.” That man is C. Linus Maxwell, who “ran a group of corporations that led the world in computer networking, satellite communications, and banking” and who has become known in the tabloids as “Climax-Well.” They make for an improbable pair, particularly after his series of highly-publicized relationships with glamorous women, but it turns out that the mogul has long had big plans for Penny, ones that will show her not only the aptness of his nickname, but reveal to her his commercial plans “to enter the empty field of vaginas in a big way.” Their relationship ends, and they soon find themselves antagonists, as Penny warns the women of the world that their sexual liberation represents a more insidious form of coercion, based on “the idea of combining ladies’ two greatest pleasures: shopping and sex.”
By Palahniuk's standards, this is actually a subtle and empathic piece of work.