Monday, June 3, 2024

Chuck Paluhniak's Survivor takes a disturbed journey through the mind of the last member of a suicide cult

For obsessives about cults and Chuck Paluhniak's Fight Club, his 1999 novel Survivor is just what the doctor ordered. 

The story starts with a bang, as Tender Branson, the last surviving member of the suicide Creedish Church cult, has forced an entire plane of people out on an island and made the pilot take him back up before forcing him out the hatch because Tender has to pee so badly and can't see any other way to make it happen. With everyone gone, he figures he has two hours or so to tell his story on the black box before the autopilot and gas run out.

The start is classic. And even if the rest of the book isn't quite as good, it is an entertaining take on how mass murderers and other unusual characters take on the roles of celebrity in our culture. Survivor is also memorable for how the story is told, with the last chapter occuring first and then working all the way down to chapter one as the conclusion.

Tender's life story is kind of a mishmash, but in a mentally disturbed, disturbing, and again entertaining way. He has a job as a house cleaner and often rattles off lists of basic chores he performs like a how-to YouTube video playlist. Making lobsters for the home owners one night, he steals one for himself then realizes he's eating it while it's still alive. He also has a job answering calls on a crisis hotline and always instructs people simply to kill themselves. 

Growing up in his cult community, Tender had 13 siblings. All his family is dead, reportedly in a mass suicide - at least for the children who hadn't already been eaten by the adults. Several had not died; however, by the time Tender is telling his story, he is the last one, as a murderer may have been stalking his other remaining siblings.

Being the sole survivor, he had become famous, gone on a book tour, and appeared on the cover of People. Part of his fame came from his girlfriend-groupie-prostitute Fertility helping him predict the disasters of the future. And even though they attempt to get married in a huge ceremony during halftime at the Super Bowl (it doesn't happen because he screams out that the Colts will beat the Cardinals 27-24 and pandemonium breaks out across the stadium), his talent waned pretty quickly and a planned TV spinoff fell through. He considered how committing suicide would keep him in the spotlight for a bit. 

Like Fight Club, the whole thing is pretty discombobulating because of the scattered timeline but also because the narrator has a multitude of personalities he himself can't quite figure out. Partly for those reasons (and also because of 9/11), a planned film adaptation was postponed and still has yet to happen. But for telling narratives about what a celebrity-obsessed and depraved society we live in, Paluhniak is about as great as it gets.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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