They say this book is Palahniuk-esque, but I don't know. I'm a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk's work, which is how I found this book in the first place, but the prose style that makes Palahniuk's books so amazing is not to be found here. Which is not to say it's poorly written - it's not, not at all. Arnoldi has a very straightforward narrative style, much sparser than Palahniuk's, but it serves her story perfectly well. I think the comparison comes because to the non-bodybuilder, Arnoldi's characters seem as bizarre as Palahniuk's, and their lives a little surreal. And certainly this book is Grotesque. But I've Been There Done That, and the characters in this book are not bizarre creations of Arnoldi's mind, they're completely real, or at least, there really are people just like them. The author says so herself, and you can take her at her word.
As a former bodybuilder, although not a pro, I recognized Arnoldi's characters instantly. There's the superior attitude toward "normal" people, who jiggle when they walk; the tendency to pose naked in front of the bedroom mirror; that odd separation of self from body; but most of all, the ultimate paradox of women's bodybuilding: bodies that scream strength and power, but which are in fact under the complete and unquestioning control of a male "sponsor" and/or trainer.
Aurora, like all fine young bodybuilding women, needs help. Aurora wants to be the best, and she has the genetic gifts to do it, but she needs the right drugs, the right diet, and a way to finance the gym rat lifestyle. Bodybuilding is more than a sport and more than an art. Dieting and drugging have been elevated to a precise and deadly dangerous science, known only to an elite few and affordable to fewer. Aurora's an amateur and she's broke. Her only chance is to find a sponsor.
And so, Aurora gladly turns herself over to Charles, a wealthy, weasely, bodybuilding aficionado, when he offers to make her a star. All she has to do is give up her personal freedom and all control over her body. Charles and the trainer he hires, Henrik, walk her through every day up to the big contest, controlling her eating, drinking, training, and shooting her up with a dizzying cocktail of drugs from human growth hormone to insulin. They treat her like a prize heifer, and if they are aware of her on a human level, it doesn't show.
This ugly dynamic is what makes the book brilliant. The fact that it is extended into the bedroom, where Aurora performs the *dirtiest* acts for Charles' amusement and Henrik runs a bodybuilder prostitution ring, drives the lesson home. She might look strong and independent, but it's an illusion - her body is the product of patriarchal exploitation at best, sickening perversity at worst. But all through this book the male proprietary nature of women's bodybuilding pops up. Her first "trainer," Skip, takes her under his wing and talks about "peeling" her (making her leaner) and giving her shoes that make her calves "pop." His joy in taking control of her body, beginning with its shape and attire and culminating in the sexual act, illustrates the tendency of men in this book to strive single-mindedly for ownership and domination of women's bodies. There is even a revolting scene where in return for an affectionate peck on the cheek, a mentally disabled man begins to grope and rub against her. Everything Aurora touches seems to turn to dirty sex.
This book follows not so much Aurora's bodybuilding career, as her ironic loss of control over her life and body while exercising a level of physical discipline few people will ever know. The big question, of course, is just how far she is willing to go, and the book provides a very satisfying answer.
There are a lot of good things that I remember about my own time as a bodybuilder, and this book made me wonder what the heck they were. It's a one-sided vision (the sleazy side), for sure, but I loved it anyway. I only wish it had been longer.