by Leah Sottile
This is the man who preached the purifying power of bare-knuckled fistfights and confessed that the stench of blood and sweat on concrete can be aromatic. He created a man who finds love in choking, and in forcing unwilling people to save him from death. He created - in his fiction, of course -- the song that would kill hundreds.
So it's not much of a shock that Chuck Palahniuk (say it with me, PAULA-nick), author of Fight Club, Choke, Lullaby and many other novels, would provide his readers with insight into the oddball things that inspire such characters in his newest book, Stranger Than Fiction. The new book documents the years Palahniuk spent sniffing out odd events and strange people as a freelancer for various national magazines. Those that went unpublished became the content for his new book.
In a way, it's a regular Palahniuk book, and it goes a little like this: Live sex shows. Grown men who build castles like Lego sets. Steroids. Generations of people who spend all year getting ready to demolish their wheat combines. Marilyn Manson, Juliette Lewis, men who build rockets and those who live on submarines. Really, coming as it does from Palahniuk's pen, it's nothing shocking -- meticulously written, compelling, hilarious and, at times, disgusting. But this time, it's real.
"So much of [getting published] was not being pushy and just being pleasant," he explains.
What is a shock, though, is that I am hearing Palahniuk's voice through the telephone receiver. And he sounds so nice. In fact, he sounds like Mr. Rogers.
Isn't this the guy who glorifies the glamour of anti-establishment countercultures in his novels? To so many readers, this is the king in their dark and dismal court. And here he was - being nice. Really, really nice.
"I'm not sure I'd really say I'm cynical," Palahniuk says. "I have a lack of sentiment. If you're not playing off people's sentiment and you're not being emotional, people perceive you as cynical."
Like so many writers, Palahniuk got his start in a cynical craft, majoring in journalism at the University of Oregon. He began his writing career at the tiny Cottage Grove Sentinel and soon moved to the Gresham Outlook.
"All I could get was $5 an hour there," he says. "I still remember being sent out by an editor to create cynicism, then to get [people's] reaction, and then create turmoil so we could create a front page story."
After deciding that prefabricated cynicism wasn't for him, Palahniuk moved to Portland, Ore., where he worked as a mechanic and a technical writer for Freightliner, a truck manufacturer. It was in the 13 years that he worked on trucks that he began creating his fiction -- including his first short story, which would become the sixth chapter in Fight Club. He also occasionally traveled around the country to seek subjects for the strange-but-true reports he'd write for magazines.
"It was the kind of job that all journalists want - to have [their] life be an adventure. In a way it was the ultimate adventure."
Chuck's adventure turned to mass attention from large publications. Attention turned to the publication of his first book. And that first book forced him to quit his longtime job, which he loved.
"It was really bittersweet. My phone kept ringing at work, and I couldn't do my job. I took my boss out to lunch, and I had to break up with him. That's what it felt like, a breakup."
It was after the success of Fight Club that Palahniuk continued to write his graphic stories - producing the mentally-afflicted stars of his books that so many disillusioned readers would find pieces of themselves in.
Sure, they choke on food and kick people in the head and dance in morgues and eat painkillers like Jujubes. But Palahniuk says that many readers miss the point of his books. Not everyone is willing to look past the fringy situations that Palahniuk immerses his characters in.
"People say it isn't literature: 'This isn't Dickens! This is just vile!' People are so concerned with the subject matter and react to it so strongly that they don't see beyond the surface of things to any deeper meaning or value," he says.
Some readers also have to adjust to Palahniuk's objective depictions of people and events -- a style of writing he calls "minimalist."
"It's almost a cinematic form of writing where you have to use exact description," he says. "You can't use any abstractions or any shortcuts. You can't use exact measurements or adverbs. For example, a five-foot-tall man looks different to me than to you. You're presenting things in an objective way, and then you let the reader pass judgment."
But more personally, all of his characters represent a stage of life that Palahniuk was dealing with at the time that he wrote each book.
"Invisible Monsters is about the time that you realize that you aren't going to be young, and you are not going to look good. That's what Monsters is about: me turning 30. Survivor was a reaction to my education. I felt like I was betrayed by it, and that my education was worthless," he says. "Fight Club [was when] I loved to be in fights at that time, and it fulfilled something like nothing else did."
Whether his characters are getting together to talk about their nonexistent tumors, to play fake suicide hotline operators, or to beat one another into bloody pulps, they are all just ways for his characters to be together.
"The characters in the books have found a scam to get their vulnerability to the world," he says. It's not about punching someone until they spit blood - it's about the things people will do just to be with others, no matter how desperate the circumstances that they choose may seem.
"[My writing is about] how much people want to be with other people," says Palahniuk. "It's all just a structure for being with other people. It's just a way for folks to be with folks, and it's very touching. It's just like church."
In Stranger Than Fiction, for example, Palahniuk finds people who are really living in odd social models, such as the amateur wrestlers willing to sacrifice their healthy ears for bulging cauliflower ears in order to look more experienced. They are models that he says play into the same overarching theme of people needing to be with other people as his fiction. And it's these people that inspire such characters in Palahniuk's fiction as Victor Mancini, Tyler Durden and Brandy Alexander.
But Palahniuk, a master at writing about human faults with a lack of sentiment, says that a second, more positive theme comes into play when he writes about real people. It's a theme of truly living out the life you desire: "[Those] people who've really given themselves over to a really crazy dream, a dream that is crazy to other people. These are people who say they are going to spend 20 years building a castle," he says. "When I'm around those people, it gives me the permission to live my dream regardless of how it might be perceived by the rest of the world."
Did Chuck just get sentimental on me? I think he did.
Publication date: 07/01/04