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.