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
ISBN: 0-385-50448-9