Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Beautiful You: A Novel

Chuck Palahniuk

  Also by Chuck Palahniuk

  Fight Club


  Invisible Monsters



  Fugitives and Refugees


  Stranger Than Fiction








  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2014 by Chuck Palahniuk

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House company.

  DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  Jacket design and illustration © Rodrigo Corral/Devin Washburn

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Palahniuk, Chuck.

  Beautiful you / by Chuck Palahniuk.

  pages cm

  ISBN 978-0-385-53803-9 (hardcover)—ISBN 978-0-385-53804-6 (eBook)

  I. Title.

  PS3566.A4554B43 2014

  813’.54—dc23 2013033379


  “A Billion Husbands Are

  About to Be Replaced”



  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page



  First Page


  About the Author

  Even as Penny was attacked, the judge merely stared. The jury recoiled. The journalists cowered in the gallery. No one in the courtroom came to her rescue. The court reporter continued to dutifully keyboard, transcribing Penny’s words: “Someone, he’s hurting me! Please stop him!” Those efficient fingers typed the word “No!” The stenographer transcribed a long phonetic moan, a groan, a scream. This gave way to a list of Penny’s pleas:

  His fingers tapped out, “Help!”

  They typed, “Stop!”

  It would’ve been different if there had been other women in the courtroom, but there were none. In the past few months all women had disappeared from sight. The public sphere was devoid of women. Those looking on as Penny struggled—the judge, the jurors, the spectators—they were all male. This world was a world of men.

  The court reporter typed, “Please!”

  He typed, “Please, no! Not here!”

  Otherwise, only Penny moved. Her slacks were bunched down rudely around her ankles. Her underthings were ripped away to expose her to everyone who dared look. She swung her elbows and knees, trying to escape. In their front-row seats the sketch artists drew fast lines to capture her grappling with the attacker, her torn clothes flapping, her tangled hair whipping the air. A few tentative hands rose among the spectators, each cupping a cell phone and snapping a surreptitious picture or a few seconds of video. Her outcries seemed to freeze everyone else present, her ragged voice echoing around the otherwise silent space. It was no longer the sound of just one woman being raped; the reverberating, shimmering eddies of sound suggested that a dozen women were under attack. A hundred. The whole world was screaming.

  In the witness stand, she fought. She wrestled to bring her legs together and push the pain away. Lifting her head, she tried to make eye contact with someone—with anyone. A man pressed his palms to the sides of his head, covering his ears and squeezing his eyes shut, as red-faced as a frightened little boy. Penny looked to the judge, who sighed piteously at her plight but refused to gavel for order. A bailiff ducked his head and mumbled words into a microphone clipped to his chest. His gun holstered, he nervously shifted his weight, wincing at her outcries.

  Others peeked decorously at their watches or text messages as if mortified on Penny’s behalf. As if she ought to know better than to scream and bleed in public. As if this attack and her suffering were her own fault.

  The lawyers seemed to shrivel inside their expensive pin-striped suits. They busily shuffled their papers. Even her own boyfriend stayed seated, gaping at her brutal assault in utter disbelief. Someone must’ve called an ambulance, because paramedics were soon rushing down the center aisle.

  Sobbing and clawing to protect herself, Penny fought to stay conscious. If she could get to her feet, if she could climb from the stand, she could run. Escape. The courtroom was as densely packed as a city bus at rush hour, but no one seized her attacker or tried to drag him away. Those who were standing took a step or two back. Every observer was edging backward as far as the walls allowed, leaving Penny and her rapist in a growing emptiness at the front of the room.

  The two paramedics pushed through the crowd. When they first reached her, Penny lashed out, still gasping and struggling, but they calmed her, telling her to relax. Telling her that she was safe. The worst was over, leaving her chilled, drenched in sweat, and shivering with shock. In every direction a wall of faces looked for blank spots where their eyes wouldn’t meet other eyes filled with their mutual shame.

  The paramedics lifted her onto a gurney, and one tucked a blanket around her trembling body while the other buckled straps to keep her in place. Finally the judge was gaveling, calling for a recess.

  The medic pulling the straps snug asked, “Can you tell me what year this is?”

  Penny’s throat burned, raw from shouting. Her voice sounded hoarse, but she said the correct year.

  “Can you tell me the president?” asked the paramedic.

  Penny almost said Clarissa Hind, but stopped herself. President Hind was dead. The first and only female president was dead.

  “Can you tell us your name?” Both medics were, of course, male.

  “Penny,” she said, “Penny Harrigan.”

  The two men leaning over her gasped in recognition. Their professional faces slipped for a moment and became delighted smiles. “I thought you looked familiar,” one said brightly.

  The other snapped his fingers, exasperated by words that wouldn’t come to mind. He piped in, “You are … you’re that one, from the National Enquirer!”

  The first one pointed a finger at Penny, bound and helpless, watched by every masculine eye. “Penny Harrigan,” he shouted like an accusation. “You’re Penny Harrigan, ‘the Nerd’s Cinderella.’ ”

  The pair of men lifted the gurney to waist height. The crowds parted to let them wheel it toward the exit.

  The second medic nodded with recognition. “The guy you dumped, wasn’t he, like, the richest man in the world?”

  “Maxwell,” the first declared. “His name was Linus Maxwell.” He shook his head in disbelief. Not only had Penny been raped in front of a federal courtroom filled with people, none of whom had lifted a finger to stop the attacker, but now the ambulance attendants thought she was an idiot.

  “You should’ve married him,” the first one kept marveling all the way to the ambulance. “Lady, if you’d married that guy you’d be richer than God.…”

  Cornelius Linus Maxwell. C. Linus Maxwell. Due to his reputation as a playboy the tabloid press often called him “Climax-Well.” The world’s richest megabillionaire.

  Those same tabloids had dubbed her “the Nerd’s Cinderella.” Penny Harrigan and Corny Maxwell. They’d met a year before. That all seemed like a lifetime ago. A different world entirely.

  A better world.

  Never in human history had there been a better time to be a woman. Penny knew that.

ng up, she repeated the fact like a mantra: Never in human history has there been a better time to be a woman.

  Her world had been perfect, more or less. She’d recently graduated law school in the top third of her class, but failed the bar exam twice. Twice! It wasn’t self-doubt, not really, but an idea had begun to haunt her. It bothered Penny that, due to all the hard-won victories of women’s liberation, becoming an upbeat, ambitious girl attorney didn’t feel like much of a triumph. Not anymore. It didn’t seem any bolder than to be a housewife in the 1950s. A couple generations ago, society would’ve encouraged her to be a stay-at-home mom. Now all the pressure was to become a lawyer. Or a doctor. Or a rocket scientist. Whatever the case, the validity of those roles had more to do with fashion and politics than they did with Penny herself.

  As a college undergrad she’d devoted herself to gaining the approval of the professors in her gender studies department at the University of Nebraska. She’d exchanged the dreams of her parents for the dogma of her instructors, but neither of those outlooks was innately her own.

  The truth was, Penelope Anne Harrigan was still being a good daughter—obedient, bright, dutiful—who did as she was told. She’d always deferred to the advice of other, older people. Yet she yearned for something beyond earning the approval of her parents and surrogate parents. With apologies to Simone de Beauvoir, Penny didn’t want to be a third-wave anything. No offense to Bella Abzug, but neither did she want to be a post-anything. She didn’t want to replicate the victories of Susan B. Anthony and Helen Gurley Brown. She wanted a choice beyond: Housewife versus lawyer. Madonna versus whore. An option not mired in the lingering detritus of some Victorian-era dream. Penny wanted something wildly beyond feminism itself!

  Nagging at her was the idea that a deep-seated motive kept her from passing the bar exam. That submerged part of her didn’t want to practice law, and she kept hoping that something would happen to rescue her from her own small-scale, predictable dreams. Her goals had been the goals of radical women a century ago: to become a lawyer … to compete toe-to-toe with men. But like any second-hand goal, it felt like a burden. It had already been fulfilled ten million times over by other women. Penny wanted a dream of her own, but she had no idea how that dream would look.

  She hadn’t found her dream as a well-behaved daughter. Nor had she found it by regurgitating the hidebound ideology of her professors. It comforted her to think that every girl of her generation was facing this same crisis. They’d all inherited a legacy of freedom, and they owed it to the future to forge a new frontier for the next generation of young women. To break new ground.

  Until a wholly new, novel, original dream reared its lovely head, Penny would doggedly pursue the old one: an entry-level position at a law firm, fetching doughnuts, wrangling chairs, cramming for the next bar exam.

  Even now, at the age of twenty-five, she worried that it might already be too late.

  She’d never trusted her own natural impulses and instincts. Among her greatest fears was the possibility that she might never discover and develop her deepest talents and intuitions. Her special gifts. Her life would be wasted in pursuing the goals set for her by other people. Instead, she wanted to reclaim a power and authority—a primitive, irresistible force—that transcended gender roles. She dreamed of wielding a raw magic that predated civilization itself.

  While she mustered her courage for a third attempt at the bar exam, Penny reported to work at Broome, Broome, and Brillstein, the most prestigious firm in Manhattan. To be honest, she wasn’t a full associate. But she wasn’t an intern, either. Okay, occasionally she ran to the lobby Starbucks for a half dozen last-minute lattes and half-caf soy cappuccinos, but not every day. Other days she’d be dispatched to fetch extra chairs for a big conference meeting. But she wasn’t an intern. Penny Harrigan wasn’t a lawyer, not yet, but she certainly wasn’t a lowly intern.

  The days were long here at BB&B, but they could be exciting. Today, for example, she’d heard thunder echoing amid the towers of lower Manhattan. It was the roar of a helicopter landing on the rooftop. Sixty-seven floors up, on the heliport of this very building, someone incredibly important was arriving. Penny had been standing on the first floor, juggling a flimsy cardboard box loaded with a half dozen hot venti mochas. She was waiting for an elevator. Reflected in the polished steel of the elevator doors, there she was. Not a beauty. Not ugly, either. Neither short nor tall. Her hair looked nice, clean and pooling along the shoulders of her simple Brooks Brothers blouse.

  Her brown eyes looked wide and honest. In the next instant her clear-skinned, placid face was erased.

  The elevator doors slid open, and a scrum of massive men, like a charging football team in identical navy blue suits, emerged from the arriving car. As if running offense for a star quarterback, they shouldered their way out, pressing back the impatient crowd. Forced to step aside, Penny couldn’t help but crane her neck to see whom they were protecting. Everyone else with a free hand reached straight up, every hand cupping a camera phone, and began to shoot video and pictures from overhead. Penny couldn’t see through the onslaught of blue serge, but she could look up and see the famous face in the screens of the numerous recording devices. The air was loud with electronic clicks. The static and chatter of walkie-talkies. From behind it all came the muffled sound of sobbing.

  The woman on the small screens of myriad phones was dabbing at her cheeks with the corner of a handkerchief, the linen and lace already stained with tears and mascara. Even wearing oversize sunglasses, the face was unmistakable. If there was any doubt it was resolved by the dazzling blue sapphire balanced between her perfect breasts. If you could believe what you read in the supermarket checkout line, it was the largest flawless sapphire in history, almost two hundred carats. This stone had graced the necks of ancient Egyptian queens. Roman empresses. Russian czarinas. It was impossible for Penny to imagine what any woman wearing such a jewel would have to cry about.

  Suddenly it made sense: The helicopter delivering some megacelebrity to the building’s roof while this traumatized beauty scurried out on the street level. The senior partners were taking depositions today. It was the big palimony suit.

  A man’s voice within the mob shouted, “Alouette! Alouette! Do you still love him?” A female voice shouted, “Would you take him back?” The crowd seemed to draw its collective breath, growing quiet as if waiting for a revelation.

  The weeping beauty framed in the small viewfinders of a hundred phones, documented from every direction and angle, lifted her elegant chin and said, “I will not be discarded.” Fractured into all of those perspectives, she swallowed. “Maxwell is the greatest lover I have known.”

  Ignoring a new flurry of questions, the security team forced its way through the curious throng to the street doors, where a motorcade of limousines waited at the curb. In a moment, the spectacle was over.

  The woman in the center of all that fuss had been the French actress Alouette D’Ambrosia. She was a six-time Palme d’Or winner. A four-time Oscar winner.

  Penny couldn’t wait to e-mail her mom and dad and tell them about the scene. That was one of the perks of working at BB&B. Even if she was only fetching coffee, Penny was still glad she’d left home. You never saw movie stars in Nebraska.

  The motorcade was gone. Everyone was still looking in the direction it had disappeared when a friendly voice called out, “Omaha girl!”

  It was a fellow clerk from the firm, Monique, snapping her fingers and waving to get Penny’s attention. Compared to Monique, with her elaborate porcelain fingernails studded with flashy Austrian crystals, and her long weave, braided with beads and feathers, Penny always felt like such a plain, gray sparrow.

  “Did you see?” Penny stammered. “It was Alouette D’Ambrosia!”

  Monique threaded her way closer, calling, “Omaha girl, you need to be up on sixty-four.” She caught Penny by the elbow and towed her toward a waiting elevator. The cups of hot coffee sloshed and threatened to spill. �
�Old man Brillstein has the entire crew together, and they’re screaming for more chairs.”

  Penny’s assumption was correct. It was the deposition. The palimony suit: D’Ambrosia v. Maxwell. Everyone knew it was a nuisance lawsuit. A publicity stunt. The world’s richest man had dated the world’s most beautiful woman for 136 days. Exactly 136. Penny knew the details of the case because of the grocery store checkout lines. In New York the cashiers were so slow and surly that you could read the National Enquirer from cover to cover while waiting to pay for your melting pint of Ben & Jerry’s butter brickle. According to the tabloids, the billionaire had given the woman the world’s largest sapphire. They’d vacationed in Fiji. Glamorous Fiji! Then he’d broken off the affair. If they’d been anybody else that might’ve been the end of the matter, but this couple had the whole world watching them. Most likely to save face, the jilted girlfriend now demanded fifty million dollars’ compensation for emotional distress.

  As they stepped into an elevator, a cheerful voice called across the lobby, “Yo, Hillbilly!” The two girls turned to see a smiling, fresh-faced young man in a pin-striped suit sprinting toward them. Dodging between people, he was only a few steps away, shouting, “Hold the elevator!”

  Instead, Monique punched the button to shut the doors. She repeatedly stabbed the button with her bejeweled thumb as if she were sending a distress signal in Morse code. Penny had lived in the Big Apple for six months, and she had yet to see anyone press an elevator button fewer than twenty times. The doors thudded together, mere inches in front of the young lawyer’s aquiline nose, leaving him behind.

  His name was Tad, and he’d flirted with Penny every time they’d met. His pet name for her was “Hillbilly,” and Tad represented what Penny’s mother would call “a real catch.” Penny herself suspected otherwise. Secretly, she sensed that he only paid attention to her because he was trying to endear himself to Monique. It was the way any man might curry favor with a pretty girl by fawning over her fat, stinky dog.