Thursday, April 18, 2024

Chuck Palahniuk's writing must destroy us before it can save us

Chuck Palahniuk may be our most beautiful, terrifyingly ugly fiction writer. I read Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, and Choke and, although they didn’t make my list of 60 favorite novels, they aren’t far behind. I felt it was time to revisit the Portland native’s work.

I started with an excerpt of Fight Club that appears in The Outlaw Bible of American Literature. It hails from the moment when Tyler Durden decides that fighting in a bar when away from his white-collar job isn’t enough; he needs to create Project Mayhem. This leads to a demon mask being painted and torched into a city high rise, a Jauguar being driven straight into a fountain, paint balls shot into an art museum's ceiling, and much more. Durden's aim is to destroy civilization so that the Earth can have time to repair itself. Kill the pandas and the highways. It’s not extinction; it’s downsizing. This excerpt, like the rest of the book and the David Fincher/Brad Pitt/Edward Norton movie (which had to be postponed for several months because Columbine has just ocurred), are all the places to start with Palahniuk: 5 out of 5 stars 

Next I headed from the three stories that begin his collection Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread:

“Knock-Knock” is about a little boy whose father loves to tell him heavily sexualized and racist jokes and whose mother has left the two of them for good. The boy doesn’t understand any of the jokes but knows enough that he needs to learn to laugh at them. Many years later, when his dad is dying of cancer, he tries to tell his dad the same jokes and his dad doesn’t laugh one bit. The boy (now a man) realizes that jokes are all about power. You tell a joke so you can make the other person laugh and show that you are the powerful one, the one in charge and exerting the control. It’s an offensive but pretty poignant short read. 4 out of 5 stars

“Eleanor” is a wacky little tale told from the perspective of someone who utters lots of big words that are almost all used improperly. Even so, it’s still highly readable, although I’m not entirely sure where Palahniuk was trying to go with it. Eleanor is a fast pit bull who likes to gnaw on a rubber bloody hand. His owner moves from Oregon into a house that had been used as a porno movie setting. The new owner sets up a shrine to one of the more-known porn actresses who performed some of her roles at the house, but the neighbors don’t like this and run the owner and his dog out. Perhaps it’s a sad statement on how we try to monetize anything cultural that has come into contact with even minor celebrities. 3.5 out of 5 stars

“How Monkey Got Married, Bought a House, and Found Happiness in Orlando” is a brilliant little tale about the communications profession. Monkey has a communications degree and is adept at selling anything to anyone. She gets a job that has her offering food samples in an Orlando supermarket and she gets a cheese product that begins turning all the customers away with its unbearable stench.  Getting desperate, she finally samples the cheese and realizes the taste is the best thing ever. She becomes a zealot with the first product she’s ever truly believed in. Her company is set to dispose of the cheese but she keeps trying to get someone to sample it. While being removed forcibly by her boss, Gorilla, Monkey jams a piece of cheese into his mouth and he realizes she is right. The cheese is delicious. It’s a weird tale that features only animals and doesn't appear to have anything to do with the title other than the allusions to how products help sell the American Dream. 5 out of 5 stars

Finally, I ended my Palahniuk cram session with Fight Club 2, the graphic novel telling the story of the narrator 10 years after the time of the original book/movie. He's a burned out dad married to Marla with a kid when Tyler Durden returns into his life. They need to figure out a way to destroy much of the world so that humanity can save itself from itself. The book is all over the place, which Palahniuk clearly knows and which is why he goes super-meta with some scenes portraying him and his fellow writers discussing which directions to take the plot. In Palahniuk's case, it's ok to overuse the word "brilliant." 5 out of 5 stars 

As a postscript, I ripped through the quick-read Fight Club 3 graphic novel. This 2019 release is apparently the conclusion, although it sets up Tyler to return with a new narrative to inhabit in a decade or so, if that's what Palahniuk chooses to do. The story has Tyler and his minions making sure civilization nearly wipes itself out with just enough humanity left to carry on and forward. This is a lot of fun but less essential compared to Fight Clubs 1 and 2. 4 out of 5 stars

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