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, smoggy 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.