am the all-singing, all-dancing crap of this world,'
the space monkey tells the mirror.
'I am the toxic waste by-product of God's creation.'"
-- Fight Club
Such is the world of Chuck
Palahniuk, a mild-mannered Oregon author who's about to become
a lot better-known. And probably for the wrong reasons. For when
the moral watchdogs of our culture descend upon the movie Fight
Club -- and they almost certainly will -- the buck will
stop with Palahniuk, who wrote the book containing all the hideous,
irresponsible ideas set forth in the movie. And that'll be a
shame, and that'll be the usual blaming-the-messenger. Especially
since all three of Palahniuk's books -- not all of which are
soon to be major motion pictures starring Brad Pitt -- are essentially
moral works about amorality. If a work of fiction does not stand
aloof from the proceedings and announce every five minutes that
this is bad behavior, Americans just don't know what to do with
Palahniuk's writing reads like the ADD thought processes of the
Internet Age. Fight Club begins like this: "Tyler
gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in
my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have
to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends."
I mean, how can you not keep reading? You don't even read it,
you surf it. This is point-and-click literature as a commentary
on point-and-click culture. A more measured and stable style
simply would not work for Palahniuk's chosen milieu.
I understand the movie version will retain the basic storyline:
A bored corporate everyman (Edward Norton), who attends various
cancer support groups in order to feel something, meets the exciting
radical Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who makes soap. Together they
start fight club, in which disenfranchised workers pummel one
another. One of the book's defining lines is "What you see
at fight club is a generation of men raised by women." These
are men who no longer know how to be men in a world that is making
old concepts of manhood obsolete. Susan Faludi, in her new book
Stiffed, talks about this syndrome; she knows that aggression
with no outlet leads to destruction. It leads to making soap.
The connection between destruction and soap? There is one, and
once you read the book you'll know it.
It's difficult to discuss the book without spoiling the movie.
And there's a lot to spoil. Palahniuk does love his plot zingers.
There's a curveball in Fight Club that's going to trump
the one in The
Sixth Sense; the entire last third of Invisible Monsters
is full of revelations, until finally even the narrator no longer
knows whether she's coming or going. With Palahniuk, it works
because he keeps skipping around in his narrative -- most of
his stuff is the opposite of linear -- so you're distracted from
clues that pay off later. I wonder, though, if his future books
will be marred by his readers' expectation of plot skulduggery.
I doubt it, though, because the ride is so fun that you really
don't want to sit there and try to guess what's going to be revealed.
You just want to go along for the ride.
In Survivor, the narrator is along for the big ride. All
of Palahniuk's books open with a grabber and then go back in
time to explain how the narrator came to be on top of a ticking
time bomb with a gun in his mouth, or at a fiery, bloody wedding
reception. In this case, we find out how the narrator came to
be on a jet airliner doing a nose-dive. In a bit of typographical
gimmickry, the chapters and pages are numbered backwards, so
we're consistently reminded that we're in a countdown. The hero
is Tender Branson, one of the few surviving members of the Creedish
cult, which committed mass suicide ten years ago. In the Creedish
cult, the firstborn boys were all named Adam and got to have
families and property. Any second-borns or thereafter were all
named Tender because they were expected to go forth into the
world and tend to things. So a lot of Tenders were working shit
jobs out in the world when the mass suicide happened, and the
ones (like our narrator) who chose not to snuff it were placed
on suicide watch, forced into therapy.
However, someone may be going around killing the remaining Creeds
and making it look like suicide. Whatever the reason, they're
all dropping like flies, until eventually only our hero is left.
The media, of course, takes up his case, and he becomes a new
messiah. He gets a public-relations makeover, he gets everything
he could ever want except happiness. What he really wants is
Fertility Hollis, a young woman whose suicidal brother he encouraged
to pull the trigger, back when Tender was posing as a suicide-hot-line
operator and telling every caller to kill themselves.
Survivor is all over the place. Is it a satire of religion,
society, fame, modern alienation, or all of the above? Palahniuk
goes for all of the above, and the result is a densely packed
odyssey that returns, every now and then, to the doomed jet airliner
as its engines flame out one by one. We get the point: The novel
is about the downward spiral of faith. If people will believe
in anything, however stupid and media-created it may be, then
nothing is worth believing in.
Palahniuk continues that theme with a twist in the recently published
Invisible Monsters, wherein nobody is what he or she seems.
In some ways, this is sort of a gender-bending rewrite of Fight
Club. Once again we have a first-person narrator who meets
and looks up to a dynamic figure -- this book's Tyler Durden
is Brandy Alexander, a pre-op transsexual who devises a scam
to steal medication from houses that have been put up for sale.
The narrator herself is a former supermodel whose jaw has been
shot off, leaving her mute and horribly disfigured. In addition
to the many convincing details about sex-reassignment surgery,
we get briefed on the radical steps necessary to rebuild a jawbone.
Better living through surgery.
Invisible Monsters has disappointed some Palahniuk-ites
taken with the surreal machismo of Fight Club and the
kaleidoscopic satire of Survivor; it feels like a minor
book while you're reading it. It feels a bit thin. But after
all is said and done, the true resonance of the story catches
up with you. Invisible Monsters is of a piece with Palahniuk's
other work -- similar themes, same laconic style -- while still
having its own life and mood. Surprisingly, this is also Palahniuk's
first novel with a happy ending. It's a kicky road trip -- a
weirder variation on Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas, if that's even possible, with
Raoul Duke as a jawless ex-model and Dr. Gonzo as a woman with
very big hands.
With each book, Palahniuk is digging at the roots of modern malaise.
Fight Club may turn out to be his Clockwork Orange
-- a cult book turned into a controversial movie, becoming the
only book he's known for -- but I hope it doesn't. Palahniuk
is no one-punch wonder. His body of work so far has been aggressive,
utterly unique, radical in its ideas and narrative structure.
"What will the end of the millennium feel like?" asks
the jacket copy on Fight Club. Read Chuck Palahniuk and
get an idea.