Chuck Palahniuk, all is forgiven.
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Since my tender teenage years, I have eagerly inhaled the work of prolific American shock-peddler Chuck Palahniuk. My university essays were punctuated with examples and oh-so-clever (or so I thought) nods to his referencing of Freud, Marx and all the other stern bearded fellows who muscle their way onto undergraduate reading lists. Gladly I would roll out the psychoanalytic undertones to Fight Club time and time again and compare my beloved Palahniuk to great and small with reckless abandon. Hungrily, I would re-read Invisible Monsters despite its content being brazenly plagiarized by Panic! at the Disco and every other tacky pop-punk act whose feeble arms could just about lift a paperback. Gleefully I would throw around comparisons between the film adaptation of Choke and the original novel, earning the derision of my MA study group for my love of such a simplistic modern author – the shame! Oh! The shame!
Heady times, I’m sure you’ll agree with all that gladness, hunger and glee being bandied about. Why should one feel faintly embarrassed at a favourite author whom I believed could ram as much social commentary and emotional investment into a short novel as, say, the opuses of DeLillo and Roth? Why indeed? The man had accolade after accolade – a thought provoking author whose style made him accessible. But then, in the dark year of 2008, came Snuff and my subsequent snub of all that I once deemed holy.
Prior to this, my dear Chuck was one of the few modern writers whose work I could eagerly devour in a sitting, creating a kind of gross-out adult ‘Goosebumps’ book with hallucinatory perspectives, skewed senses of morality and biting satire on the modern condition. Imbued with sharp observations on TV culture, the power of advertising and breakdowns of social norms and expectations, his earlier novels were shot through with the odd philosophical musing that warranted re-reads. Invisible Monsters was a devastating yet utterly compelling work, while the weighty Haunted combined numerous styles to create a fascinating observation of reality TV fame in a Big Brother scenario condensing fraught relationships, left-field fantasy and a floating narrative interspersed with grimly visceral short stories. Notoriously, audience members would faint at public readings of the ‘Guts’ section. While these shock tactics seemed a tad crass and obvious they didn’t detract from the book’s quality. There was enough heft in the narrative to avoid its substance being tarnished. With each successive novel, the author’s craft went from strength to strength, culminating in the alternative future of Rant: its Christ-like antihero Buster Casey and the experimental ‘oral history’ of its narrators. Regardless of the relentless snubbing from my learned peers, I vehemently defended my questionable taste.
A year later, out came Snuff and I skipped to Waterstone’s to find its explicit hardback cover tantalisingly wrapped in warning tapes. How exciting. After a quick read, however (literally, the book is tiny with huge, huge print) I was left cold. What promised much – a satire of the pornography industry featuring a botched suicide attempt and the perspectives of nameless numbered men awaiting to go down in history as being among a hundred sexual partners to an ageing porn star – ended up as a try-hard jumble of scenes and a clumsily obvious subversion of Oedipal drives in an updated setting. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an issue of prudishness, no no no. While the abject scenes of gore and horror in earlier novels were delivered with purpose and impact, the icky parts of Snuff seemed a forced issue in comparison, tacked on for a few final gasps. The final twist finished proceedings with a hollow and joyless scene that could have had far more clout with a bit of investment. It occurred to me that in his attempts to be prolific, Palahniuk had somewhere run out of steam, and his ironic brilliance had deserted him. Or had I at the ripe old age of twenty-something grown out of his writing and into the kind of sniffy student type I once despised? I prayed for the former and saddened, threw in the literary towel.
Years later and no longer saddled with endless reading lists, I decided to give my teenage buddy another go. I was surprised to see that since my abandonment, Palahniuk had written a whopping three novels with varying degrees of success. Beginning with Tell All, the foul odour of disappointment wafted around me. Here again were the same afflictions that plagued my last foray – the twist was more or less shouted loud and clear from the off. While the characterization was acute it didn’t quite get there, sitting uncomfortably as a semi-successful morbid celebrity satire that relied heavily on clumsy set-pieces and a thin plot. Bah. BAH. Pygmy, however was an incredible, breathless read. A first person narrative of a secret agent from an unnamed Communist state sent as an exchange student to corrupt America from the inside, it contained dark humor and subtle, sickening twists that slowly knitted together to great and almost touching effect. Not at all laboured, this novel seemed to be the fruit of much thought and delicacy. Here were the same genuine and sober musings on the ‘American Dream’ and perceptions of consumerism that permeated his earlier work but sharpened into observational, and yes, pretty vile humour. Vile, but never purile, and there indeed is the rub. We’re not all great, all the time – I was asking for too much.
While Palahniuk may not produce staggering, in-depth work every 4-5 years in the vein of Pynchon, Franzen and friends, his staccato musings, while hit and miss at times fill a hole that only he can fill. For me, Chuck Palahniuk is the very essence of a Middlebrow author – his work is not boastful or condescending, you don’t need a degree in Philosophy to truly appreciate it; it allows us all in on the joke regardless of how horrifying it may be. His many novels aren’t pretending to change the world; they merely allow the reader to consider it through fantastical situations, ironic commentary and bizarrely likable characters. And that for now is all I ask.