“‘For too many years,’” Max recited, “‘women have been excluded from the full pleasure available to them in their bodies.’” He was reading from a printed sheet of paper. A press release. “‘I believe, as do many medical professionals, that a large proportion of chronic mental and physical ailments beset women because they accumulate stress that might otherwise be easily and quickly released with the right tools…’”

Even to Penny’s unsophisticated ear, the speech sounded like a string of euphemisms. According to Maxwell, it had to. It was selling sex. Even more controversially, it was selling women the means to better sex than they had ever enjoyed with any man. To some listeners, this announcement would sound like gobbledygook, like an outdated advertisement for a feminine hygiene spray. But to other listeners, namely men who valued only their own greedy sexual needs, this speech would sound like the end of the world.

The two of them were sitting in bed. Lately, they were always in bed. Penny never donned more than a bathrobe, and that was only to accept a gourmet meal brought by the majordomo.

“’That’s the reason,’” Maxwell continued, “‘we’re proud to introduce the Beautiful You line of personal care products…’”

C. Linus Maxwell was preparing to expand his vast corporation and enter the field of empty vaginas in a big way. All of the jewel-toned gels and liquids on his bedside table. The magic pink champagne douche. The fluids engineered to modulate the coefficient of friction. He would be bringing them all to the lonely female consumer.

The packaging would be pink, but not obnoxiously. The whole line would be marketed under the umbrella name Beautiful You. Thumbing the buttons on his smart phone, Maxwell showed Penny a prototype of the advertising, the words Beautiful You curved in curlicue white letters. A tagline along the bottom of each ad read, “Better Than Love.” The douche, Maxwell explained, would ultimately be sold as a dissolvable powder in a small envelope, which could be mixed with water or champagne. It was only one of several shockingly innovative personal care products. Soon every woman would be able to enjoy mind-bending orgasms at a moderate price.

Every gal from Omaha to Oslo would soon be savoring the pounding cut-loose orgasms Penny had only recently discovered. It was stunning to imagine how this might change the world.”

All of the research and erotic training Maxwell had done with swamis and witch doctors and courtesans – all the sex secrets of the ancient world – he was about to market them to the modern woman. Every gal from Omaha to Oslo would soon be savoring the pounding cut-loose orgasms Penny had only recently discovered. It was stunning to imagine how this might change the world. As Maxwell’s former loves had demonstrated, given the right sexual satisfaction women could flower, lose weight, kick drugs. Every woman’s personal fulfillment was only weeks away.

Just in the past few days, sequestered in Maxwell’s Parisian penthouse, Penny had dropped eight pounds. She slept like a baby. She’d never felt more relaxed and at ease.

In secret, she was a little proud that she’d made her own contribution to the project. Max was still tweaking some recipes. Polishing off any rough edges. In the near future, girls just like her, average girls without stellar bodies and luscious faces, they would have access to the kind of bone-melting pleasure that only movie stars currently enjoyed. As she scrolled through photos of prototype sex toys, lubricants, and nightgowns, Penny asked, “Why ‘Beautiful You’?” Maxwell shrugged. “The publicity wonks said it tested the best. Plus, it translates into any language.”

Young or old. Fat or short. Billions of women would learn to love the bodies in which they were alive. Beautiful You would be a blessing to all womankind. Penny knew that if the mass-marketed products worked half as well as the prototypes he’d been demonstrating on her, C. Linus Maxwell would quickly double his fortune. Kidding him, she asked, “Don’t you have enough money?”

There it was again. That sad smile flitted across his lips. “It’s not about the profits,” he told her. “Not at the price point I have in mind.”

It was about his mother, Penny guessed. Wasn’t it every boy’s dream to fete his long-suffering mom? Maxwell’s had slaved away to give her boy a head start in the world, and then she’d died before he could show his gratitude. It was a little creepy: the idea that he was honoring his mother by showering women with great sex… but his motives were noble and touching.

A thought struck her. It was none of her business, but she asked, “Do you still miss her? Your mom?” He didn’t answer. He went back to silently reading his press release.

Impulsively, she leaned over and pecked him on the cheek.

“What’s that for?” he asked.

“For being such a loving son.”

And there it was again. The wan, furtive smile of a lonely little orphan.

From Beautiful You, out now in hardback from Jonathan Cape (£16.99)


Palahniuk_290Chuck Palahniuk is the author of thirteen previous novels – Doomed, Damned, Tell-All, Pygmy, Snuff, Rant, Haunted, Lullaby, Diary, Choke – which has been made into a film by Clark Gregg starring Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston – Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Fight Club, which was made into a film by director David Fincher. He is also the author of the non-fiction profile of Portland, Oregon, Fugitives and Refugees, and the collection Stranger Than Fiction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. Beautiful You is published by Jonathan Cape in hardback and eBook. Read more.

Author portrait © Shawn Grant