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Chuck Amok

"'I 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 it.

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.