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 for more details.

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