Tag Archives: Chuck Palahniuk

Tell-All, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2010, 179 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66631-2

Sometimes I wonder how many books it takes for an author to get scratched off from my “buy on sight” list.  I don’t have a definitive answer yet, but I will soon going to have another data point to consider if Palahniuk keeps going like that.  I’m not sure what happened after Rant, but everything he’s done since then has been underwhelming: Snuff couldn’t out-weird its own porn-star inspiration and Pygmy was an unreadable mess.  Tell-All manages to be a bit better than Pygmy, but not by much… and not enough to escape the feeling that Palahniuk may be due for an extended holiday.

The novel is written as a tell-all from a woman who has spent her life caring for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.  The stylistic devices that accompany this conceit are a deliberate appeal to movie-script lingo (“Act II, Scene One: For this next scene, we open with a booming, thundering chord from a pipe organ” [P.149]), direct addressing of the reader, repetition of a few barnyard noises, as well as the gossip-column-inspired boldfaced name-dropping of every new person, title, brand or group.

It’s a measure of how disappointing Tell-All can be that none of the devices seem all that original; that the story itself seems familiar; and that it all feels like a faded black-and-white copy of earlier Palahniuk novels.  The opening sting of the book is “Boy meets girl.  Boy gets girl. Boy kills girl?” and even then you can hear the weary sigh of fans realizing that Palahniuk hasn’t reached any deeper in the bag of plots that the one that drives nearly any romantic suspense ever made.  A quick read through the book only confirms the impression: this is weak stuff and no amount of tepid stylistic tricks can masquerade that lack of interest.

The execution isn’t entirely dull, but that’s not really high praise coming so soon after the unreadable Pygmy.  It’s not that Palahniuk has been lazy: The novel, taking place around 1960, is peppered by references to long-faded fifties stars.  That does have its own educational value (it reflects badly on me that I had to look up Lillian Hellman to realize that she wasn’t a fictional character), but Tell-All’s historicity offers little other than plenty of whooshing references, wasted winks and further distancing from the novel.  The appeal to nostalgia is undermined from the very first few pages by Palahniuk’s Gen-X sarcasm: I suppose that it makes sense to go back to pre-Technicolor days for a well-mannered story of fatal screen glamour, but he displays too little affection for the time and too much mean-spirited sniping to qualify for the nostalgia bonus.

For better or for worse, Palahniuk has conditioned his fans to expect more.  Clocking in at a bit less than 200 pages, Tell-All feels both insubstantial and overblown. There isn’t much to gnaw upon, and at the same time it feels too long even midway through.  It’s a short story that has been padded to (barely) novel-length… for which we’re supposed to pay thirty dollars.  Clearly, Palahniuk’s entertainment-for-money ratio has declined precipitously in the past few years.  A quick curious look at the novel’s Amazon rating shows three-stars-out-of-five (with a histogram that peaks at two-stars-out-of-five), which is really scraping the barrel as far as Amazon rankings go.

At some point, maybe now or maybe next book, it will be useful to start thinking about whether Palahniuk himself is in irreversible decline.  His shock-shtick has peaked in Haunted, and one wonders if the young post-adolescent males most likely to go nuts for his books aren’t turning to uncensored online forums for savage satisfaction.  Sometimes, a writer runs out of things to say and starts coasting on his reputation, and soon it will be appropriate to start wondering if Palahniuk is at that point.

But now, though, it’s enough that Tell-All is better than Pygmy, in much the same way that a clearly suicidal person has at least taken a step away from the ledge.

Pygmy, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2009, 241 pages, C$29.95, ISBN 978-0-385-66629-9

Ever since discovering Chuck Palahniuk’s brand of outrageous fiction a decade ago, I have sometime wondered what it would take for me to really dislike one of his books.  Once you’re suitably jaded at the violence, perversion and generally antisocial behaviour of his novels, it’s hard to raise an eyebrow at his ever-increasing outrageousness.  Palahniuk is a professional provocateur, and there’s an ongoing game between him and his readers to see who blinks first.

Now, with Pygmy, I know what makes me blink… and it turns out to be bad grammar.

From the distance of a plot summary, there’s little in Pygmy to scare away Palahniuk’s usual fans: As the novel begins, a young trained assassin from an unspecified totalitarian regime lands in America to be adopted by a typical American family.  But this turns out to be one facet of Operation Havok, a plan to place sleeper agents in American cities where they can directly attack the Midwest way of life.  Our narrator knows everything worth knowing about America, Americans and how to kill them: He’s got intricate martial arts training, the ability to smell people down to their most intimate secrets and the equivalent of a post-graduate degree in terrorism.  Now imagine him dealing with a typical High School and you can imagine the fun.  Raised in a totalitarian regime to despise everything America stands for, it’s not a surprise if our narrator describes suburban life in utterly alien terms.

It wouldn’t be a Palahniuk novel without the usual amount of blood, sex and over-the-top personal behaviour.  Never mind the adoptive mother’s unquenchable passion for vibrators: Barely three chapters into Pygmy, our narrator takes revenge on a bully by brutally sodomizing him –thus unleashing a latent homosexual passion that, once spurned, leads to a high school shooting midway through.  This is fairly tame material for Palahniuk readers, who have come used to far more disturbing stuff.  It helps that Palahniuk never forgets to be intensely (if darkly) funny in most of what he writes: Pygmy has a splendid opportunity to comment on modern Americana and makes the most out of it.  Perhaps the best sequence of the book is a Model United Nations featuring a bunch of horny teenagers, leading to such instant-classic lines as “Sri Lanka says Afghanistan has the biggest crush and could totally jump the bones of Morocco.” [P.84]

But one of the reasons why this sequence works is that you can actually understand much of it.  Otherwise, Pygmy is narrated in approximate broken English, a stylistic choice which quickly goes from odd to exasperating.  Eventually, as the narrator develops his own way of describing suburban normalcy, we’re asked to decode paragraphs such as this one:

For official record, additional reside aboard bench cushion vast breathing cow, host father.  Twitching chicken, host mother.  Dual host parent unconscious splayed wide limbs spread, neck muscles lolling heads loose until rest own shoulders, lips loose, trickling long ropes translucent saliva.  Unconscious, breathing prolonged liquid inhales, loud sputtering exhales. [P.101-102]

This is irritating enough in small doses; now imagine an entire 240-pages book of it.  Reading Pygmy gave me horrible flashbacks to my abortive attempts to read James Joyce: my eyes skipping from one familiar word to another and my brain rejecting any attempts at making sense of the sentences, eventually resolving meaning from loose associations and accumulated context.  It’s unpleasant like little of Palahniuk’s fiction has been so far –and I kind of liked “Guts”.

Add to that the usual Palahniuk recurring motifs used with ever-lessening effect (Repeating periodical table elements?  Now you’re reaching), the uneasy tension between the satire and the dirt-serious mechanisms of indoctrination, the too-brief usage of the book’s best character (a “cat sister” worth an entire book by herself), the often-lazy satire and the flaws of the book don’t accumulate as much as they multiply… and the result seems to confirm Palahniuk’s sliding standing ever since 2007’s Rant.  There are rewards in this novel, but they’re slight and unpleasant to decode.  Maybe it was a good thing if Pygmy waited a year in my to-read pile before being revealed as a disappointment: Now I can jump over to follow-up Tell-All and hope that it gets better in a hurry.

Snuff, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2008, 197 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66468-4

Chuck Palahniuk has always been a writer defined by gross excess. So when he announced that Snuff was going to deal with the pornographic film industry, readers cringed in anticipation: what kind of novel would that turn out to be?

The fun with the book starts before even cracking it open: The striking cover art, dominated by an open lipsticked mouth, features letters carved with outlines of women and copulating couples. The theme carries inside, with end-papers making a good attempt at presenting the Kama Sutra’s top positions. The book itself is entirely printed in brown, dirty letters running for almost two hundred pages.

The content is initially up to the worst expectations: We find ourselves on the set of a pornographic film, where an aging porn-star is trying to set a record. There are six hundred men in the green room of the studio where the movie is being shot, and they are all expected to perform on her. Palahniuk, of course, doesn’t miss a detail as he describes the logistics of the event and the horrible consequences of double-dipping when unmentionable bodily fluids have to be managed with precision.

Four characters end up sharing the novel’s point-of-view: Mr. 600, a veteran porn actor; Mr. 72, a young kid with a sentimental streak; Mr. 137, with his mysterious past and even murkier intentions; and Sheila, the producer working hard to keep the show rolling. The interactions between the characters run deeper than expected: Palahniuk hasn’t chosen his viewpoint characters randomly.

As the novel progresses, a central complication emerges: The characters realize that this is meant to be the porn-star’s last film, that she means to die on camera –forever sealing her legacy and her world record. But nothing is ever so simple, and Palahniuk’s still got a few dramatic revelations up his sleeve. Stylistically, there’s a certain interest in the structure of the novel, which almost works as a one-set theater piece with no nudity; alas, flashbacks and a few last chapters taking us out of the warehouse and onto the set damage the restraint of that aspect of the book.

This is a very short novel: from quick word-count estimates, it can’t be more than 60,000 words long, and probably ends up much shorter than that. But even at that length, it feels a bit bloated and repetitive. Even though Palahniuk’s usual catchphrases are toned down (the closest ends up being the “…Back Door Dog Pile” titling motif that seems to dominate the cited porn film titles that aren’t puns or parodies of something else.), the novel seems to grind itself in place between the time the hook is explained and the moment where the characters reveal who they really are. The conclusion feels like a lame placeholder put there while waiting for a better idea.

That this is a joyless novel isn’t much of a revelation: Palahniuk’s dark humor may be entertaining, but it’s not the kind of thing to make you smile once the book is over. The emphasis on the pornographic industry carries its own problems: it’s almost by definition a field so shameless as to be un-parodiable, and what Palahniuk comes up to try to shock his readership isn’t even up to the industry’s own horror stories. So the reader ends up in a limbo where laughs, eroticism and interest are kept far away.

It’s certainly a Palahniuk novel, but it also ends up being one of his most disappointing, especially after the impact of his previous Rant. There’s an irony, I suppose, in the idea that a shock writer would be defeated by a shocking setting. But Snuff leaves the impression that it would have been tighter and more interesting had it been boiled down even further, either as a short story or an alternative theater play. Regular Palahniuk readers will enjoy it (since they know what they’re getting into), but this is not likely to be a book that will gain him new ones. In a way, Palahniuk has set himself up to fail: the book is too extreme for the average reader, too tame for the fan, and not showing anywhere near the new directions felt in Rant. A minor work, while everyone waits for the next one.

Rant, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2007, 336 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66349-6

It’s done. Chuck Palahniuk has finally turned to Science Fiction after years of teasing us with the possibility. The promotional material remains hush-hush on the issue and many reviewers will tiptoe around the evidence, but Rant is the novel where Palahniuk finally crosses the border into unarguable Science Fiction. After teasing us with a research-heavy writing style that often felt as hard-SF, after revelling in social extrapolations only one step away from SF satire, Palahniuk finally owes up to the genre.

Everyone saw it coming, of course. Palahniuk’s stock in trade, from Fight Club onward, has always been to imagine the possible. The “What if?” so beloved of SF writers. It doesn’t matter how unlikely it is, if it is possible. Not many people actually like beating up other people and getting beaten up in return, but it is possible, in today’s world, in much the same way bodily modifications can twist a narrator’s identity or how someone can fake choking for a twisted con game. Reading Palahniuk’s fiction is already an exercise is suspension of disbelief.

It helps that Palahniuk has never been a rigorously mainstream writer. His last three novels, from Lullaby to Haunted, more or less dealt with fantastical concepts. Haunted even included two short stories that, squinting the right way, could be read as classic fifties-style SF. Rant, despite tackling the very science-fictional trope of time travel, is not such a big stretch: Palahniuk can’t be bothered by technological or scientific explanation and reaches straight for the woo-woo bag of tricks. Time travel via the wish fulfilment of Jack Finney rather than the machine-aided rationality of H.G. Wells.

(I’m not spoiling much: A close reading of the first thirty pages of Rant pretty much give the game away.)

So this new infatuation with another genre may not be as interesting than it seems at first glance: This is just Palahniuk going further in one of his usual directions, after all. Far more interesting is the way he tells the story: Rant is written as an oral biography, a style of writing that allows Palahniuk to have some serious fun with the way he structures the novel. Nominally a way to present different perspective on a same subject, oral biography is here twisted to serve Palahniuk’s style: He uses the “different voices” motif to create a collage of perspectives that each describe an aspect of the character and the world. The cacophony of voices acquires a pleasant montage-like effect, every bit player whispering something worthwhile in our ear, even if we can’t recognize it at first.

Rant Casey himself ends up being a side player in his own “biography”: From a strong Trickster-like presence at the beginning of the novel, Rant fades against the lively background that Palahniuk puts together as the book unfolds. Progressively, we’re made aware that the world in which Rant exists is not our own: that substantial social differences exist, and that they mask something even more hideous lurking under the surface. In a way, that’s always been one characteristic of Palahniuk’s oeuvre: presenting a society that may superficially look like ours, but is really not. In this case, though, no amount of rationalization will manage to take in account the radically different world in which Rant exists, even if most of the concepts (party-crashing cars in each other, for instance, in an acknowledge nod to Fight Club‘s main conceit) are at least theoretically possible.

Those used to Palahniuk’s style won’t be shocked to find that Rant is once again all about, well, shock. Disgust, decency and logic are the three virtues one must learn to ignore in order to read a Palahniuk novel and this one is no exception. It doesn’t always add up, naturally, but Palahniuk’s books are rides more than they’re sustained arguments. Part of the thrill of Rant is in seeing unfamiliar words, concepts and icons gradually become clearer and clearer as the book unfolds. Besides the SF elements, this is another sign of Rant‘s belonging to the Science-Fiction genre: Palahniuks wields exposition like a master and often lets slip strange blips before we’re ready to understand them.

But also like a Science Fiction novel, the world of the novel eventually overpowers the main character. Rant, after our promising expectations, eventually become a shell of a character in a far more intriguing world. The repetitive ending grates a bit as it goes back to Rant to back-fill obvious parts of his back-story.

Yet it doesn’t matter much: Rant is easily one of Palahniuk’s most enjoyable piece of writing in a while. The acknowledged SF influence seems to allow him a bit more freedom that usual (which is saying a lot), and the oral biography form shakes up some of Palahniuk’s stylistic quirk. A strong entry… but not for everyone.

Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2005, 404 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50948-0

By now, we all know that Chuck Palahniuk is one sick puppy. His fans, his publicists and his editor all thank him for it. But at some point, believing one’s own press releases becomes a dangerous thing. A feedback loop is created in which reputation takes over and self-parody soon follows. While that tendency has been obvious for most of the author’s past books, Haunted comes closest to crossing the line at which the myth of Chuck Palahniuk may be consuming the real author.

Haunted is arguably a departure for Palahniuk. Obviously, it’s his longest book to date: Whereas his previous novels all nestled comfortably under 300 pages, this one goes above 400. But this is not really a novel. It’s more accurate to call this a fix-up, a short story collection thinly disguised by a framing device that becomes increasingly more clumsy as the narrative advances.

As a short story collection, hey, it’s classic Palahniuk: humour and horror mixed together with a heady side-order of sadism, cynicism and post-modern detachment. Palahniuk’s universe is crammed with sociopaths and the whole point of his fiction is seeing this world through completely depraved minds. It takes a special kind of reader to appreciate what he’s doing with his fiction: kind of a who-blinks-first game of gross-out. Readers now expect the extreme from Palahniuk, and the man cheerfully obliges.

So we get stories like “Guts”. If you’re a Palahniuk fan, you already know about it: It’s the infamous story that has caused, so far, over four dozen people to faint at public readings. Strong advance notice and if readers are liable to just read it and go “ewww/coool”, it’s not difficult to image how a public performance could make people swoon. Other stand-out stories of the book include “Foot Work” (about the dark side of new-age, though its final conclusion is telegraphed pages ahead), “Slumming” (acting like hobos is fun until people get killed), “The Nightmare Box” (in which the ultimate truth drives people crazy; I’ve got my hunch on what “it” may be), “Product Placement” (a story that may make you re-think putting a bad review on-line: Uh-oh!) and “Obsolete” (perhaps Palahniuk’s first foray in outright SF, even as outdated fifties-style Science Fantasy.)

As with all other short story collections in the history of literature, there are a number of other stories that don’t work so well. “Exodus”, for instance, is almost unbearably disturbing in its depiction of a child abuse police squad turning out to be latent child abusers themselves, but at some point the story becomes so extreme that the only reaction is a chuckle and a “Oh, Chuck, you’re just trying too hard now”. At least a handful of other stories are similarly too much. Once you figure out that people are going to die in nearly every story, it’s not difficult to guess the ending pages before it happens. It doesn’t help that the cumulative effect of Haunted is closer to repetition than horror. Grand Guignol style works, but it may work better in thirteen stories rather than twenty-three.

What’s also unfortunate is that the framing story isn’t as strong as it could be. In a few words, it’s about a group of “writers” isolating themselves at a retreat in order to spend three uninterrupted months writing a perfect masterpiece. But things go wrong (or right) when everyone involved in this retreat (including the organizer and his assistant) are revealed to be latent psychopaths. They kill each other, they tell stories (the twenty-three short stories) and they kill each other some more.

On one level, you can certainly read the framing device as a warped take-off on reality television. This becomes especially obvious when the collective narrator (the “I” of the framing story is meant as a royal singular) admits that all of them would rather survive through a harrowing ordeal and write that up rather than spend any effort creating something original. As long as the others do the dying, why not sabotage the heating, burn the place, spoil the food and enhance the suffering? What’s a little self-mutilation, cold-blooded murder and outright cannibalism when you can emerge from the experience with a fat film contract about your life story? Why not select a role and try to kill each other according to dramatic logic?

It’s twisted, it’s quirky, it’s original and it’s even a little bit of fun. But that fun disappears quickly once the demolition derby starts and it becomes obvious that none of the characters are worth saving. Heck, they’re not even up to the talk of being honest writers, let alone survivors. What’s a story without heroes? ponders Palahniuk, knowing fully well that his own novel doesn’t have any. It’s not that the book doesn’t have any interest (for all it’s fault, it’s impossible to stop reading), but that the reader clearly emerges on top of the author in this game of gross-out. Once readers figure out where things are going, it’s hard for Palahniuk to pop any more surprises out of his twisted mind. And it’s a shame, because there are some really good moments in the framing story. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t really work as the framework of the novel.

And that brings us back to the stories, which don’t really fit in the framing device any better than the framing device holds up together: A number of them suppose apocalyptic experiences that don’t lead back to the framing situation. The device of punctuating the straight prose segments with “poetry” about the characters doesn’t work either: the “poetry” reads like regular prose with quirky line breaks and it’s not those line breaks that improve the content.

All told, Haunted isn’t truly satisfying, but it’s more of a disappointment than a failure. Palahniuk’s style remains as hypnotically readable as ever before, even as you find yourself smirking over the content. Should you be able to shake the book hard enough to send all the weaker parts flying away, you’d be left with a decent 200-250 pages volume of savvy shocks and thrills. The main mistake of the book is in trying too much, breaking the suspension of disbelief so important in reading about Palahniuk’s peculiar world.

Disbelief is so unsuspended, in fact, that Haunted may the Palahniuk book that may make sceptics out of regular fans. I even found myself snapping out of the stories at some point, muttering stuff like “now I know that you’re making this up.” (Movie studios don’t pay “line people”, Chuck. Heck, save for Star Wars, there aren’t even any “line people”, Chuck.) And once you step back, even slightly, from the gross-out game so crucial in appreciating the nihilistic charm of Palahniuk, it’s hard to get back in the proper mindset. Suddenly, the puppet lines of Palahniuk’s fiction become a little too obvious. The body count loses its importance. The horrors become pleas for attention. The gross-out becomes tedious. And Haunted loses its power to haunt by trying too hard.

Fugitives and Refugees, Chuck Palahniuk

Crown, 2003, 176 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-4000-4783-8

If you’re not a fan of Chuck Palahniuk and you’re not in any hurry to learn more about Portland, this is going to be a very short review: Don’t bother with this book. It’s written by Palahniuk for Palahniuk fans, with an appropriate look at the city of Portland and the weirdness contained within. No, it’s not an accident if you haven’t seen Fugitives and Refugees in bookstores and may never even have heard about it. Please skip the rest of this review. We’ll see each other at the next one

As for the rest of you, I can only assume that you want to learn more about Portland and/or are already die-hard fans of Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction from Fight Club to Diary. If you have already read his non-fiction collection Stranger Than Fiction, you’re already halfway ready to have a look at Fugitives and Refugees.

Part of the “Crown Journeys” collection, this is, obviously, a look at the city of Portland. But unlike a typical travel guide (and much like a typical Palahniuk book), it focuses on the weird, the cool, the unusual and the perverted. Portland high quotient of quirkiness, explains Palahniuk though an interview with Geek Love‘s author Katherine Dunn, can be attributed to the theory that “everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the cheapest city where they can live is Portland. This gives [the city] the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among misfits.” [P.14] The fugitives and refugees of the entire country, one could say.

And so Palahniuk takes stock of his chosen city and reports back from the field. Half of Fugitives and Refugees is built like a typical travel guide; here’s a chapter on restaurants (complete with recipes, to the grand pleasure of all Palahniuk-naggers who maintain that his fans would buy even The Man’s grocery lists); here’s a chapter on shopping; another on museums. But then the book gets weirder: There’s an explicit chapter on the city’s sex trade; another on the haunted buildings of Portland; a third one on the underground tunnels under the city…

Palahniuk has done his legwork in tracking down the fugitives and refugees of his city. His guide to the city’s landmarks is augmented by mini-interviews with zoo keepers, milling experts, fancy carmakers, drag queens, museum owners and the inventor of a self-cleaning house. Fascinating stuff, regardless of whether you intend to visit Portland or not. It’s in this section of the book that you can perhaps most clearly see similarities with Palahniuk’s other non-fiction collection Stranger than Fiction.

But much as Stranger than Fiction also found some of its best moments in self-reflective pieces about Palahniuk’s life, every chapter of Fugitives and Refugees is interspersed with “Postcards” from the author’s personal history, from his starring role in a MTV video to his participation in Portland’s SantaCon’96. Palahniuk’s fans will be delighted and fascinated by another peek at the author’s life, but even regular readers are likley to consider these pieces as the book’s highlights. I’m still laughing myself silly about his description of an LSD trip inside a planetarium, and I’m fascinated by his description of the “Portland’s semiannual Apocalypse Café”, a potluck held in a condemned industrial building, as if it was in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society. Very Fight Clubish indeed.

Palahniuk’s fiction is less distinguishable by its overall plot than its shocking vignettes and affectionately described oddball characters. This holds true with Fugitive and Refugees: while this won’t leap on top of anyone’s reading list based on the sole distinction of having been written by Palahniuk, it makes for an interesting (and fast) read for his fans. They will find everything they like about the author’s fiction on full display here, along with a number of tasty anecdotes from his life. What remains to be established for non-Portlanders is the ratio of impression-to-reality: From Fugitives and Refugees, we get the impression that Portland is a city teething with repressed craziness, but is it truly as special, as weird and as off-the-wall as Palahniuk says? Heck, it almost sounds as if a visit is in order to find out…

Stranger than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2004, 233 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50448-9

Chuck Palahniuk is justly famous for his weird fiction, but as a hot young writer he has also earned a place in every hip magazine editor’s Rolodex as an ideal writer of weird nonfiction. Who else but the writer of Fight Club to go and take a look at amateur wrestling? Who else but the writer of Survivor to describe sessions where people try to sell their life story to Hollywood producers? Who else? Over the past few years, Palahniuk has accumulated more than a dozen nonfiction credits in magazines such as Gear, Black Book, Playboy or The Los Angeles Times.

Now, Doubleday has packaged a real treat for fans of Palahniuk’s fiction: A collection of “true stories” (as the sub-title says) culled from Palahniuk’s work and Palahniuk’s life.

Some articles are straight-up reportage pieces. A look at a raunchy festival that would make fundamentalist reach for their torches and pitchforks. A few days amongst college wrestlers, cauliflower ears and all. Profiles of contemporary American castle-builders. A backstage pass at a combine demolition derby. Unusual subjects, but Palahniuk’s unconventional style works well in presenting you-are-there pieces. He even manages to make nuclear submarine living interesting and unusual to a steady reader of submarine thrillers. There’s even a curious sympathy to it all; by reporting without editorializing much, Palahniuk allows for the obvious conclusion that there are just other modes of normalcy in our big and diverse world.

Other pieces are interviews with people famous or infamous. Imagine Palahniuk’s choppy and gimmicky style used to do a profile of actress Juliette Lewis. Imagine the author of Invisible Monsters interviewing shock-rocker Marilyn Manson around a Tarot deck, then avoid whiplash as you consider a profile of conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan. In these pieces, Palahniuk’s acts less as a interviewer and more as a listener, an observer.

But other pieces are much closer to autobiography, as the line between journalism and confession is crossed over and over again, as Palahniuk experiences gonzo journalism to a degree that would surprise even Hunter S. Thompson. Who else would dress up as a dog for a walk through the city, bulk up on steroids, not follow instructions on a bottle of hair depilatory and then write it all up? For Palahniuk’s fans, these pieces are the real substance of the book: They reveal that author as one of his characters, intentionally or not fashioning an image much alike that of his protagonists.

For those fans, the book’s slim eight-pages introduction is almost worth the price of the book. Palahniuk tackles the American Dream (“Getting away from people”), his cyclical writing process, the nonfiction component of his novels and laces it all with introspection and tales of how his novels were written. It doesn’t really get any better than this, but it sets the tone quite well. After all, Stranger Than Fiction is part autobiography, what with Palahniuk dealing with his sudden fame, his experiences in Hollywood and the murder of his father. An interview with Amy Hempel (available online) says more about Palahniuk’s literary methods and lineage than about Hempel’s books —though it may lead more than one reader her way.

All in all, it’s an enormously entertaining, highly satisfactory book. It’s difficult to imagine how well-received it will be by people who can’t distinguish Palahniuk from Patterson, but it ought to please the fan audience quite well. The biggest problem with the book is endemic with non-fiction collections: Magazine articles are often commissioned with both a writer and a photographer: While the writer can obtain comfortable reprinting rights for the text of the article, photos are another matter entirely, and often an expensive matter indeed. So the articles in Stranger than Fiction don’t have any illustration, which isn’t a problem most of the time, but can be very frustrating: whenever you hit pieces about modern-day castles, combine demolition derbies or other visually intriguing subjects, the void can be annoying.

But when you’re dealing with a writer like Palahniuk, the lack of images is almost irrelevant. Anyone who has read even one of his books knows that he’s more than capable to keep our interest with just his words. And so Stranger Than Fiction is a treat, a pure dose of the writer looking at the world without the artifice of fiction. It almost ranks as an equal to Palahniuk’s non-true stories.

Diary, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2003, 259 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50947-2

You’ve been a fan of Chuck Palahniuk for a while. You can appreciate the hipper-than-thou narration of his novel, the urban nihilism, the gimmicky recurrence of motifs, the catchphrases, the blistering contempt in which he holds the world. You think Invisible Monsters is beautiful trash. You think Fight Club has something deep to say to your generation. You think Lullaby was his best book since Survivor. And yet you’ve hesitated for a year before getting Diary. Lots of books to read on your bookshelves. But also bad comments. Rumours that it wasn’t such a hot book. Whispers that Palahniuk started believing in his own mystique. Then there’s the bizarre way Palahniuk outed himself late in 2003. You couldn’t care less (in fact, you learnt it months afterwards), but they’re all little justifications you can use for not getting to Diary any sooner.

But now you have. You have bought the hardcover right on time, (just as the trade paperback came out) anxious to add another Palahniuk first edition to the nice little collection growing in your library. You have taken a long delighted look at the dust jacket design (with a hidden message inside). You have smiled at the neat unusual touches bestowed upon the book by the designer. You think, how bad can it be? It’s a new (well, almost new) Palahniuk book.

You start to read. Bam; from the first few pages, you’re back in the groove. Nothing makes sense, but that doesn’t matter in the early chapters. Images are created: the fish-shaped island. Weird situations are introduced: people calling to complain that rooms have disappeared in their houses. exotic information is delivered, this time about facial muscles, all cleverly tying back to the emotional state of the characters. Recurring sound-bites are introduced to act as a chorus throughout the novel.

And yet something isn’t quite the same. It’s a lot more somber, for one thing. Palahniuk is never chirpy, that’s for sure, but he’s usually darkly funny. Diary features a female protagonist, a first for Palahniuk (and no, Invisible Monsters doesn’t count). And it doesn’t take place in a city. That’s a major point: it doesn’t take place in a city. Palahniuk doesn’t cope well with rural areas. He’s a man of asphalt, concrete, smog back-alleys and lamplights. Nature doesn’t suit him, and neither do calm vacation communities. Even if the calm island where most of the action takes place has a deep secret that no one wants to reveal…

For the longest time, you wonder where the story is going. Diary may only have some 260 pages, but it feels empty. It’s only in the last hundred that things are set in motion, that the real story emerges from the book. And the story is horror. Sufficiently realistic in parts to make you reject supernatural explanations, and yet subtly off the axis of reality, leaving only irrationality as an answer. There are evil humans and an evil fate united against the protagonist; what more could you ask of a horror novel? Why not a meta-fictional envoi? Because that’s what you see at the end. It’s a cute nod. It doesn’t explain the conceit break toward the end of the novel, as the “diary” form becomes obviously impractical for the teller of the tale.

Ultimately, you close the book left unsatisfied. Oh, you’ve had fun and a few pleasant moments in the company of an author so unlike anyone else. But Diary still feels as if it was a contractual obligation more than a new novel from Palahniuk. You’re still going to remember more of this novel than most of what you’re going to read this year. You’re still going to buy Palahniuk’s next book. But somewhere at the back of your mind, there are alarm signals. Not ringing bells, but quiet electronic pulses, the kind that can make you wait months before getting a new book. And you wonder. You wonder of you’re going to remember Palahniuk’s name the next time you’re at the bookstore.

Lullaby, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2002, 260 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50447-0

The newest Chuck Palahniuk novel is here, and as you may expect, it’s a blend of weirdness, hypnotic prose, self-loathing characters and strong images. What’s new is a fascinating premise and a willingness to delve into supernatural horror.

It starts out with a washed-up journalist investigating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There is one catch, though: He knows what causes it. And it’s not anything rational: Merely reading a specific poem, a culling song (page 27 of a library book that happens to be at each victim’s bedside), will kill anyone.

The journalist ends up memorizing the poem. Tries it on his editor. Finds that he now has the power to kill anyone by the power of his voice. It gets worse; he realizes that his bottled-up anger is so fierce that he is actually able to kill people remotely, merely by thinking the poem.

In typical Palahniukian fashion, a blackly comedic sequence follows, as our protagonist commits a mini murder spree against everyone who annoys him. Serial killing has seldom been more amusing. It gets funnier when he gets annoyed by radio announcers.

What’s not so amusing are the consequences of his discovery. In an hypnotically terrifying passage, (Chapter 7) Palahniuk imagines the effects of “a plague you catch through your ears.” [P.41] It’s not an entirely new idea (see, oh, David Langford’s “comp.basilisk FAQ” for a similar premise) but it’s still a good one, and Palahniuk is willing to play it for all it’s worth, not even once mentioning “memetic epidemiology”.

Eventually realizing that he’s completely out of control, our protagonist decides to destroy all copies of the book which contains the fatal lullaby. In order to do so, he enlists the help of a realtor who specializes in haunted houses (because you can sell those again… and again… and again…), an eco-terrorist and a Wiccan girl. A motley crew, or an ultramodern nuclear family? Turns out there isn’t much of a difference.

Killing library clerks, burning down used bookstores, scamming restaurants and sight-seeing a bit, the protagonist’s quest eventually uncovers something even more sinister, a spell-book that promises to unleash even more devastation if it falls in the wrong hands.

Which it does.

There’s always been a sub-theme of apocalyptic renewal in Palahniuk’s fiction (from Tyler Durden’s ultimate goal in Fight Club to the fist-fight climax of Survivor) and this fascination is magnified here. Indeed, elements of previous novels pop up here and there, like Choke‘s scamming or Invisible Monsters‘s road trip and -naturally- the hip and rhythmic prose of his entire oeuvre.

This time, Palahniuk leaves weird-but-realistic fiction behind and imagines a warped tale of urban fantasy. Charles de Lint on acid, in one way. While Choke already showed signs of dipping in the fantastic pool, Lullaby jumps right in with magic spells and haunted houses. Add to that the strangely altered universe in which the tale takes place, and it gets a bit messy.

But messy fun: This is probably Palahniuk’s most enjoyable novel since Survivor. Whereas Invisible Monsters was trashy fun, Lullaby has more unity and content than Choke while offering a more interesting reading experience. All the usual Palahniuk elements are there, so fans know what to expect. Newer readers, on the other hand… should expect something weird. But good.

Choke, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2001, 293 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50156-0

Well, Palahniuk’s back with another book, and the bad news are that he’s not stretching many new writing muscles with his latest effort. Choke is in many ways the same type of stuff we’ve come to expect from the author of Fight Club, Survivor and Invisible Monsters. A first-person narration by a flawed character whose self-destructive impulse eventually break into weird self-salvation; this is and isn’t something we’ve seen before.

Victor Mancini, medical school drop-out, has two jobs: The first one is at one of those fake historical villages. The second is to pretend to choke in fancy restaurants and “allowing” people to rescue him, then milking their sympathy for a few checks from time to time. Whenever he’s got time, he hits sexual addiction recovery groups for hot chicks or visits his mother, currently wasting away at a retirement home.

But of course, you may suspect that as with any Palahniuk book, the real point of the novel isn’t as much in the main character as in the various vignettes he tells. No disappointment here, as we’re treated to a demented behind-the-scenes tour at a historical theme park (Chapter 4, 19, 28), the mechanics of scam-choking (Chapter 12), warning signals in public places (Chapter 15), a consensual mock-rape going hilariously wrong (Chapter 27), rock-collecting addiction writ large (Chapter 29) and the practical considerations of adhering to the Mile-High Club (Chapter 40). Good stuff, funny stuff. Not always particularly well-integrated stuff.

The usual Palahniuk tic of repeating particular catch-phrases are also included, this time with the medically inspired “See also:” cascades and the recurring “[foo] isn’t the best word for it, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.” These fragments work well, and don’t get too repetitive.

What is new -but not particularly successful- is how Palahniuk here flirts with the supernatural, with a less-than-definitive conclusion that disappoints in this regard. (It’s not the only problem with the conclusion, which is also a bit too hurried for full satisfaction.) There is also a small twist of sorts, but not a big one like the whopper in Fight Club or the barrage of steady revelations in Invisible Monsters.

At least one thing that’s steady is the high level of quotable material, hilarious vignettes and semi-deep thoughts. Also constant is the compulsive readability of it all; don’t be surprised to read the book in only one setting, as it’s small enough and vigorous enough to drag you all the way though it. If nothing else, Palahniuk’s prose kicks the stuffing out of all the turgid self-important bon mots found elsewhere in the “general fiction” category. It’s hip writing, and it makes for cool reading.

(Though, as usual, readers with weak sensitivities should steer clear of the Palahniuk oeuvre, as -in this case- it’s pretty much impossible to talk about self-destructive sexual addicts without, well, being graphic about it.)

And yet, despite all the reading goodness of a new Palahniuk, it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed by it all. Familiarity breeds contempt, and if it’s a good thing for an author to deliver similar material to his fan-base, it’s hard to feel as if Palahniuk should unshackle himself and try something different. Even third-person narration might be a break from the norm!

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with picking up his latest book. Funny, readable, not entirely superficial and filled with memorable passage, Choke might just make you wheeze, hiccup and snort with delight.

Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk

Norton, 1999, 297 pages, C$18.99 tpb, ISBN 0-393-31929-6

The third novel of an author is in many ways the most revealing of his future career. Not only does no-one knows what to expect of your first, but you also have all the time in the world to polish it. If it’s successful, not only will everyone will expect something of your second, but you’ll also be expected it to deliver it in short notice. Most authors have enough material discarded from their first book to inspire a second one. But the third, ah, that’s when the author’s career takes off, with the expectation of a steady level of quality and the time restraints it implies.

It’s also the novel that shows if the author is a one-note hack.

Chuck Palahniuk certainly made an impression with his debut novel Fight Club, a blisteringly angry manifesto for the Gen-X generation. Beginning as the narrator has a gun in his mouth, it certainly established Palahniuk’s fascination for self-destruction. His second novel, Survivor, wasn’t much different, presented as the last recording of a man about to crash a plane in the Australian outback.

So it’s no surprise to find ourselves in familiar territory again at the beginning of Invisible Monsters, as the narrator flashbacks from a scene involving a burning house and people getting shot with an automatic rifle. Rewind a few months, and the plight of the narrator becomes more apparent: An ex-fashion model, she’s been disfigured by a rifle shot across the jaw. Unable to speak, stuck in a relationship with a sexually conflicted vice cop, at the mercy of a clothes-stealing best friend, she quickly succumbs to the peculiar charms of a pre-op transsexual also looking for her true identity.

If you think the above paragraph is weird, well, you really have no idea. The narrative hops in time like a mad rabbit, character all have multiple identities, self-destruction is pushed to new limits, twists and turns abound, and nothing is quite as it seems.

The twists and turns of the novel are so extreme that they quickly acquire a quality of our own. Don’t be surprised to whoop and cheer at every outrageous revelation and ask for even more. Remember: No one is what it seems!

All throughout, Palahniuk keeps up his usual verve and ironic narration. While our protagonist’s voice doesn’t quite fit with her personality, it’s not too much of an intrusion, as if it’s all-too-clear that this is Palahniuk’s narrating as a fashion model and not the fashion model herself. Give me irony. Flash. Give me quotable quotes. Flash. Give me a bookload of fun. Flash.

As usual, there are several priceless moments scattered over the novel. One Christmas gift unwrapping turns into a nightmare for our narrator as her parents give her boxes after boxes of condoms, overcompensating for the plight of their AIDS-afflicted son. In another instance, we’re treated to a clinical description of the steps required in order to rebuild the narrator’s jaw —no small wonder our stomachs churn, as we understand why the narrator would rather stay that way.

But what about Palahniuk’s future career, and all that good stuff mentioned in the introduction? It’s obvious that Palahniuk isn’t moving too far away from his usual themes of self-destruction and nick-of-time redemption. It’s also clear that stylistically, he’s sticking to what he knows best. While the shtick is still vastly entertaining, it’s also beginning to show its signs of excessive use. Only Palahniuk knows what his next book holds, but let’s just hope that it will allow him to stretch a few conceptual muscles.

Survivor, Chuck Palahniuk

W.W. Norton, 1999, 289 pages, C$33.99 hc, ISBN 0-393-04702-4

Okay, so your first novel, Fight Club, is an angry Gen-X declaration of war against the Baby-Boomers. It’s written in a dense, hyper-charged style that sends critics back to their thesauri for “genius” synonyms. It becomes an underground hit. It’s bought by a major Hollywood studio, adapted by a hot new screenwriter who doesn’t butcher the material and directed by one of the decade’s hottest talents. The final film is praised by younger critics, frightens every one over forty and stars Brad Pitt, fer chrissakes! What do you do for a follow-up?

Something different, but not that different.

Start with a great premise: The narrative is presented as being a recording inside the black box (orange, really) of a 747 about to crash in the Australian outback from lack of fuel. To reinforce the point, the pagination in Survivor run backward, from 289 to 1. The narrator, Tender Branson, is alone on the plane. All the passengers have disembarked, and the pilot has long since parachuted to the ground. Now, as Tender awaits the inevitable crash, he intends to tell how he arrived at this point.

Continue with a memorable protagonist: Before his short career as airplanes hijacker, Tender Branson was a domestic servant. Before that, he was a member of a cult. After that, he was a media messiah. Wait. Rewind. Tender’s cult childhood has prepared him to be the best domestic servant there was. But after the whole cult suddenly self-destructs, the Government assigns a case worker to prevent Tender from killing himself like the other exiled members of the community are doing. As things evolve and his remaining fellow ex-cultists all commit suicide (or are they really?), Tender finds himself the last surviving member. Fame is only one step away, and that’s how Tender finds himself wreaking chaos at the Super Bowl half-time show. No, wait. Darn. That’s too much stuff to compress in one single paragraph.

Wrap up everything in wacky details: The world of Tender Branson is a funhouse parody of ours, with mass suicide cults and moody clairvoyants that are also sterile surrogate mothers and underground suicide lines to pick up chicks and big murderous brothers and case workers more screwed up than their clients and prepackaged celebrities and pornography landfills and tricks to get almost any stains out of almost any material. Go ahead; ask him how.

And polish off with a sheen of style: Fight Club would be a daunting act for anyone to follow, and indeed Chuck Palahniuk’s second novel is far less memorable that his debut, but Survivor is still a blast. Palahniuk’s style is a mix of catchy quotes (“the only difference between suicide and martyrdom is press coverage” repeats the jacket blurb.), a mass of technical details to provide unarguable authenticity, a compulsively readable narration and some truly off-the-wall concepts. Not to mention the wacky humour: Survivor is surprisingly funny, with plenty of laugh-aloud moments that will positively bother your fellow bus passengers. (The media messiah chapters or Survivor reminded your reviewer of Mark Leyner’s underrated Et Tu, Babe? in sheer manic satire of egomanical celebrities.) Palahniuk’s vision of the world is almost positively science-fictional in nature, mocking today’s obsessions by extrapolating trends to their logical outcomes. As with Fight Club, one finishes Survivor with a sense of giddy exhaustion, a whirlwind trip through an imagination littered with land-mines.

So lead your readers to a conclusion: Survivor is a worthy follow-up to Fight Club. Less angry, less unique, but sufficiently enjoyable in its own right. The latest rumors assign Jim Carrey and Jerry Bruckheimer as protagonist and producer of the upcoming film adaptation. Isn’t that weird enough for a weird enough book?

An important note: The ending is not what it seems. Check out the Official Chuck Palahniuk page at http://www.chuckpalahniuk.net/ for more details.

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

Owl Books, 1996, 208 pages, C$19.50 tpb, ISBN 0-8050-6297-1

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”

And so begins Chuck Palahniuk’s exceptional first novel Fight Club. If the above lines don’t already send you rushing off to the bookstore, keep reading.

Most readers, including myself, first heard about Fight Club from David Fincher’s 1999 film, which starred Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. I was lucky enough to see the film at an advance screening, and cherish the memory of a darkly funny, nihilistic yet curiously uplifting piece of cinema. I awarded it the top spot on my “Best of 1999” list, and naturally began to hunt down the novel on which the film was based.

Consciously or not, -after all, this is a story partly about anti-consumerism- Owl Book didn’t re-release Fight Club in sync with the film. I had to wait three months until I finally saw it in local bookstores. I hesitated a few seconds, started to read a few lines to pass the time and soon found myself beginning the second chapter without missing a beat. You can’t ignore a book that pulls you in like that. So, faithful to Tyler Durden’s subversive spirit, I paid by credit card… while also buying a book about Jerry Springer. I can already imagine the face of the government analyst sifting through bookstore credit records: “Oh no, an anarchist who’s also stupid enough to like Springer!”

Reading Fight Club is nearly as memorable as seeing the film, and takes about as much time: At 207 pages, this isn’t a big novel, and yet it feels as substantial as a full 500-pager for the sheer density of good material. Palahniuk writes with panache, but also with concision and the ratio of quotes-to-pages is truly astonishing.

Must most of all, Fight Club is an *angry* book. Far angrier than the sweetened-up version shown on screen. Critical reception for Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB was polarized, with younger critics praising it and older critics hating the “violence” of the film. Well, these older critics obviously shouldn’t even touch the book, because it’s ten times worse. While the film has a body count of exactly one, the book makes no distinction between civilian and enemy, praises guns and exercises no restraint. From page two onward (“shag carpet of people”), Fight Club is one of the meanest books I’ve read.

I was in the mood to destroy… everything beautiful I couldn’t have. Burn the Amazon rain forest. Open the dump valves on supertankers. Put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda. Don’t think of this as extinction. This of this as downsizing. For years, humans had screwed up this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone. I wanted to burn the Louvre. This is my world, my world, and those ancient people are dead. [P.122-124]

It gets worse. So much worse, actually, that even though there’s immense cathartic satisfaction in reading Fight Club, it’s not as comfortable an experience as what I now think of as the “sweet Hollywood version.” The endings are also considerably different: the book packs in an extra punch or two.

Edgy? Certainly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Worthwhile? Absolutely, especially if you’re a twenty/thirtysomething male. See the film then read the book? Yes, in this order.

(One final note: Screenwriter Jim Uhls’ work in adapting Fight Club for the silver screen is absolutely phenomenal, carrying memorable quotes and scenes, adding more material in the same vein and toning it down just enough to make it palatable to audiences. Would have been well-worth an Oscar nomination.)