l a n g u a g e
Maybe this is a rant; maybe you should just go away, just read the books yourself. Maybe, I don't know. What I do know is I've got to start off by listing a few adjectives for you:
Now if these are the sort of words you look for in your literary discourse,
if you find that you use these regularly, sincerely, and consider them both
colorful and apt, you're strongly encouraged to find the door. Quickly. There are many reviews and essays concerning Chuck Palahniuk that are drenched in just this sort of language. I think you'll find them a little more your, uh, speed.
Chuck Palahniuk is a man who's trying to build something. Some identity, something, something on which to base the living that we all bother to do. Some way to understand why we, in America, achieved everything we were looking for (the house, the car, the success) but we're really not all that happy. People discuss the theme of tearing down, of destruction, in Palahniuk's work, ignoring his thesis that destruction is necessary in order to rebuild. He's a man who's dealing with the logical conclusion of Joseph Heller's Something Happened, the hollow suck of success, in a way that might just turn out to be productive.
People accuse Palahniuk of being just another pop culture icon, a disposable TV-generation blip, when he abandoned television years ago. People accuse Palahniuk of being a J.G. Ballard or Kurt Vonnegut clone when he's never read any Ballard, and has read just one book by Vonnegut.
Yes, he has a distinctive style. Yeah, you can echo his "I am Jack's raging bile duct" and his "Ripoff isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind." And yes, his words do come off like bar banter, lacking self-consciousness and pretense, running through varying plot lines like that story you just gotta tell the guys, leaving out all the boring parts, because you know you're competing for their attention with the girl up at the bar with the skirt and halter-top.
Yes, he's a good writer, he may even be an influential writer. You don't even have to agree with me here, just don't expect my eyes to glaze when you go to the machine gun post-modern vocabulary bag.
c h i l d h o o d
Chuck Palahnuik is an American writer of some consequence, who has, to date, penned six novels, two non-fiction books, numerous essays and short stories, and at least one (apparently poor, abortive) screenplay. His first published novel, Fight Club was adapted for the screen in 1999 (directed by David Fincher), and adaptations of his second and third are currently in the works. A contemporary of writers Bret Easton Ellis, Nick Hornby, and Irvine Welsh (to name a few), and compared to all three due to similarities in style, voice, theme, and subject matter (to differing degrees), Charles Michael Palahniuk was born on February 21, 1961 to parents Carol and Fred Palahniuk. The name Palahniuk (pronounced
paul-ah-nik) originates from the combination of his grandparents (Paula and Nick) Seits' names, dating to their emigration from the Ukraine to the U.S. Due to the repeated separation (and later divorce) of his parents, Palahniuk (and his three siblings) grew up mainly in eastern Washington, where his grandparents kept a cattle ranch.1
a d u l t h o o d
Palahniuk attended the University of Oregon's School of Journalism in his early twenties, graduating in 1986. He's lived in Portland ever since. After college, he worked at Freightliner, a diesel truck manufacturer:
I worked at Freightliner for thirteen years right after college. I worked on the assembly line for several years. Then I moved into working as sort of a research mechanic, I would do repair and vehicle modification procedures and then write about them. So I worked on trucks and wrote about them.2
Dissatisfied with the work (and the pay as well: "we joked how liberal arts degrees should include welding skills," he says in his essay "Escort"3, "so you'd at least pick up the extra two bucks an hour our shop paid grunts who could weld."), Palahniuk took to volunteering at a hospice as an "escort," transporting and accompanying
disabled and dying people to events and group support meetings. "I found myself sitting in group after group feeling really guilty about being the healthy person sitting there--'The Tourist'"4 This idea, "The Tourist," later became one of the themes of Fight Club, in which the narrator infiltrates support groups for various illnesses without being afflicted himself. Later, Palahnuik was asked by a patient to clear various sexual paraphanalia from his apartment so that his mother would not find it after he'd died. But he lost consciousness before giving Palahnuik the key. Palahnuik was forced to break into the apartment and collect the dildos, magazines, leather clothing, etc.: "I kept thinking I was going to get arrested with a garbage bag full of greasy sex toys . . . I was terrified."5 He quit being an escort not long after.
f i c t i o n
Palahnuik didn't begin to write fiction until he was thirty-two years old. Joining a writer's workshop in Portland, soon publishing short stories in magazines like Modern Short Stories, attempting his first novel (a 700-page mess called If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Already)6, then Invisible Monsters. Invisible Monsters, the story of a disfigured fashion model, was considered by a number of publishers, but eventually rejected because it was too "dark." Palahniuk's reaction to this was to write the angrier, darker Fight Club:
I had that Stephen King thing down and they still weren't publishing me . . . I mean I was writing those perfect sentences, and those perfect thriller plots. I had modeled my writing after successful writing, trying to copy successful writers so well. I thought I was following a pattern of success, when in fact my work was completely unremarkable because I following the pattern so closely. Rather than writing the stories that I would tell in real life, the stories that I loved, I was writing the stories that I thought would sell--more "marketable" stories--and they were getting shot down. Fight Club was written out of the frustration and anger of so much rejection. It was also written out of the freedom and resignation that I would never be published, so therefore I could write anything. If you have nothing to lose you can do anything, and that's what Fight Club is about. At that point I had nothing to lose.7
Fight Club came out of Palahniuk's experiences as a hospice escort, out of his experiences in fighting (not in clubs), and out of the realization he had after receiving a severe beating that if you're disfigured badly enough, the people around you will do their best to ignore it, to just look away. It was a reaction to all the "Oprah" books, all the books written for middle-aged women (his recipes for napalm and explosives were a reaction to the trend, as he saw it, of women placing recipes in the text of their books--and, before his publishers requested some minor changes, his recipes were quite accurate, having been worked out between himself and his brother over a three-day-period).
Fight Club was accepted almost immediately, and was published in 1996.
f a m e
Fight Club gained an immediate cult following, and once the paperback edition was in print, it began selling respectably. The Fincher film, though, elevated Palahnuik and his novel to such a level of notoriety that the world "cult" takes on a different meaning (as in his official website8, titled "The Cult"). Suddenly, Invisible Monsters (and another novel, Survivor), were no longer "too dark" to be published. Involving fight clubs (groups of men who meet to fight), pranks, vandalism, the destruction of one's body, the rejection of capitalism, the frustration of a generation of men raised by women, and, of course, the art of making soap, Fight Club tapped a strong cultural vein, actually (apparently) spawning some real-life fight clubs amongst fans. Although Palahniuk was a member of the Portland Cacophony Society, the basis for the novel's Project Mayhem (pranks and vandalism), Palahniuk denies any knowlege of fight clubs before the novel was written: "There's no secret society of clubs where guys bash each other and gripe about their empty lives, their hollow careers, their absent fathers. Fight clubs are make-believe. You can't go there. I made them up."9
Survivor, published in 1999, is a good novel that has been plagued by poor timing. The title Palahniuk had intended for this account of the final surviving member of a death cult who becomes a world-famous evangelist was "Unnatural Disasters." His publisher chose "Survivor," which also happened to be the title of the upcoming television series. The series became one of the most talked-about television shows of the period, overshadowing the novel and eliminating the sort of branding association that Fight Club had enjoyed. Also, the book was published just days before the "Hale-bop" mass suicide. This dulled the books humor a bit.
A reworked version of Invisible Monsters was also published in 1999. This novel is, in part, autobiographical (though it is narrated by a female model with no jaw), describing such exploits as touring expensive homes under the pretense of interest in buying them, only to search medicine cabinets for pills, which they would quickly swallow. This novel was an attempt at modeling a book on fashion magazines (which Palahnuik found himself leafing though, often, while waiting in laundromats). He considers it a failed experiment.
Choke, a novel which Palahnuik says is his best to date, was published in 2001, is about sex addicts. Palahniuk sat in on a number of sex addiction therapy sessions in preparation for writing the book. It also concerns a character who pretends to choke while eating in expensive restaurants, so that people can save his life. People, then, feel obligated to give him money.
d e a t h
At the point that the film version of Fight Club was about to explode,
elevating him from "cult writer" to "the guy who wrote Fight Club," Palahniuk received news that his father had been killed:
Fred Palahniuk had answered the personal ad of a woman whose ex-husband had threatened to kill her and any man with her. Despite the apparent danger, Palahniuk's father began dating the woman. Less than two months later, the couple were gunned down, their bodies burned down to piles of bones. The ex-husband was eventually found guilty of the crime.10
f u t u r e
In 2002, Palahniuk published his fifth novel, Lullaby, his first attempt at horror. This novel is about a "culling song," an ancient lullaby that's used to euthanize sick and old people, about witches and death and frustration. And, of course, humor. Palahnuik says plans to write more in this vein, more in horror and black humor than in the themes of identity that pervaded his first four novels.
Film versions of Survivor and Invisible Monsters are in the works, and it is rumored that David Fincher is interested in directing a film version of Lullaby in the future.
s e l e c t e d l i n k s
Fight Club and Everything2
Book of Very Common Prayer
Don't encourage people to read
Self Improvement is Masturbation
Everything I learned from "Survivor"
God won't take the time to sort your ashes from mine
When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?
That Little Bitch Marla Singer: A Cultural Critique of Sexism in Fight Club
Until today, it really pissed me off that I'd become this totally centered Zen Master and nobody had noticed
b i b l i o g r a p h y
4: see 2.