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.

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