DON'T EXPECT PERVERSION. THOUGH the book opens with a cowboy and
a cowgirl naked, covered in chocolate pudding and whipped cream,
performing what I'll discreetly call "acts" upon the stage of a bar,
don't expect the sustained unsettling Palahniuk-ness of his fiction.
Chuck Palahniuk is a weird guy (we're told in some ad copy) who
writes weird, dark, edgy (et cetera) novels—and yet his
life is, platitude of platitudes, stranger than his fiction.
Don't believe it. This book, this book of essays and articles, is if
anything an affirmation of normality.
We begin on stage, at the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival.
The sort of Sex Fair we've mostly all heard of but never
attended—not out of prudishness so much, I suspect,
as the fear that we'll grow bored of it. We begin,
perhaps, with Palahniuk seeking mutants and outcasts,
seeking some shocking image, and instead finding naked people, sunburned,
standing in just another line to buy merchandise.
Later we meet a handful of men who build castles, a Rocket Guy, a room full
of amateur wrestlers spitting and sweating to make weight, minor celebs
such as Marilyn Manson, and so on. Portraits of communities, of
specific people, of Palahniuk himself.
We could call this a collection of unrelated stories, written mainly
for magazines, bound together and sold because, well, it would
sell—but that wouldn't be the truth. There is a cohesion here:
these are stories about, above all, the way that we relate to
one-another, the way that we arrange for others to relate to us. I
don't know why he called it "Stranger than Fiction" (besides the
marketing), but step one is ignoring the title.
STEP TWO IS YOU forget what you think you know about Palahniuk. I've already
had my rant there and there,
but the jist is that he's not a destructive writer or a nihilist, and if
it seems sometimes that he's pissing on the American Dream—then . . .
well, yeah, that part's true:
If you haven't already noticed
[he begins the book's introduction], all my books are about a
lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.
In a way, that is the opposite of the American Dream: to get so rich you can
rise above the rabble, all those people on the freeway or, worse,
the bus. No, the dream is a big house, off alone somewhere. A
penthouse, like Howard Hughes. Or a mountaintop castle . . . .
Whether it's a ranch in Montana or basement apartment with ten thousand DVDs
and high-speed Internet access, it never fails. We get there, and we're alone.
And we're lonely.
His books are about striving to replace that loneliness, about
tearing it down, and then rebuilding. This opens him to a certain sort
of obtuse criticism, and if you're inclined to read book reviews you've
probably run into it.
This book, at the very least, clears all that up. You could call it "soft"
or "uneven," and you might even be right—but you'd never call it
"uncaring." In "Bodhisattvas," one of the book's most extraordinary stories,
Palahniuk writes of a woman whose dogs are used to search for human remains
after tragedies large or small. He writes of the aftermath of Hurricane
Mitch in Honduras—Michelle, the woman, narrates as she pages
through photo albums of the disaster; Palahniuk does what he does most
throughout this book, he listens.
In another story he interviews the political writer Andrew Sullivan and
publishes the article without comment or commentary, one long quotation
left to stand on its own. He interviews Juliette Lewis and titles the
article "In Her Own Words."
In his introduction (one of the most interesting
pieces in the book), Palahniuk says "It's hard to call any of my novels
'fiction'." He explains that, in researching Invisible Monsters,
he'd call up phone sex operators and ask for their "dirtiest" stories. That
policeman/blackmail/gonorrhea plot-line, it's basically found art. The
narrator in Fight Club, that's Palahniuk at twenty-five,
volunteering as an "escort" for a charity hospice, driving terminally-ill
patients to their support groups, watching, listening.
This book, it's about how we tell each other our stories. How those stories
are greater than fiction.
WE HAVE WRITERS, QUITE a few of them, who tell
stories better than the rest of us. They write
epics, they write fictional biographies, they write vast, elaborate science
fiction series, and their stock in trade is catharsis. Most of them
use words poorly.
We have the rare writers who think more clearly than the rest of us. We could
call them, loosely, philosophers. We could call them "simple"—not so much
because, like precision athletes, they "make it look easy" (though they do).
"Simple" because in retrospect their progression of thought seems almost
inevitable. "Simple" as in "unencumbered." And, in an Aesop sort of way,
they deal in the moral.
George Orwell comes to mind.
Chuck Palahniuk isn't a storyteller. Not the way of Stephen King or
John Irving or Charles Dickens.
He aspires to be, especially in his two most recent
novels (this is the source of much of my ambivalence toward them). And
he doesn't even pretend to be a philosopher.
But, see, this man can write.
It's about the assembly of the sentence. An understanding of the suspense
in every full stop. The flow from a long, complex construction into a short,
sharp jab. We'd call it scansion and pacing if we could accept our
language even slightly detached—but we can't. So we'll call it
pulse. Hemingway had it, and
Fitzgerald at his best owned it, and from
what I figure James Joyce invented the goddamn thing.
Palahniuk, I guess you'd say, inherited it. He comes from the school of
minimalism—which he talks of, at length, in "Not Chasing Amy." It is,
from my reading, a meditation on charging language so full of static
electricity that it crackles. Understanding the whole breadth
of context that's possible in any phrase or description, if only it could be
worded perfectly. Omitting needless words. So on.
The point is that he's obsessive at the technical level, which if nothing
else is a prerequisite for this, this pulse. This thing that draws
me to read each of his books. This thing that evokes, in a writer, nothing more
sharply than envy.
AND THERE WE HAVE the weakness of Stranger than Fiction: that
the language doesn't crackle, not like his novels. The book is mainly
journalism, and it reads like magazine journalism—well-written and
interesting and yet, for the most part, fleeting.
For two-thirds of the book
Palahniuk buries his voice, his solitary, wisecracking, lonely voice. Which
I think we can all agree is his thing. He has to rely on secondary
talents, on being the storyteller (which he does passably), on being the
philosopher (which he does not). But these are not why we read Chuck Palahniuk.
There are flashes of wit and raw talent. Little pieces of the voice
we expect as he describes the screenwriter's pitch, the life story we all have
to sell. As he lays out literary minimalism. As he speaks of his murdered father.
And as we come to the book's third section, the autobiographical section, we
find full-bore Palahniuk. We find what, I suppose, we were hoping for.
For those who read his books, this is probably enough: The true stories that
echo and illuminate the novels we've read. The new insights. So on. There are
things we want to know about our writers—the backstage, confessional type.
For the other readers, yes, this is an interesting book. Not extraordinary, not
groundbreaking, but it does tell us something about communication, about community,
about what it's like to build castles out of stone, about the small details of
large-scale disaster, about how the questions we ask others often explain ourselves—
Christ, I said he was no philosopher.
But, man, he still can write.
Stranger than Fiction : True Stories by Chuck Palahniuk
231 pages, Copyright © 2004 by Chuck Palahniuk