[9 October 2003]
Chuck Palahniuk’s newest novel centers on Misty Kleinman a once-promising artist in everyone’s eyes save hers. Her husband, his family and everyone on their island home of Waytansea assures her she will take up her brushes again one day and produce work so astonishing it will save the locals from their dire economic condition. Misty doesn’t agree; she is currently overworked as a waitress to provide for her family since her husband’s suicide attempt left him comatose. Her bitterness and despair have also contributed to an alcohol abuse problem which, combined with her work schedule, leave little time for pursuing art. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that, indeed, Misty does resume painting and, indeed, her exhibition does prove the salvation of the island. That denouement is the only expected detail in the entire novel though the “how” of it is surprising and devilishly ingenious.
It is tempting to view Palahniuk as the least acknowledged but most accomplished horror writer currently practicing despite the preponderance of social satire in his work. The black humor quotient of Bentley Little’s work has not kept him from being classified as a horror writer whose every book is emblazoned by a quote from Stephen King (a writer who, by the way, Palahniuk admires). And another writer whom King has trumpeted, Clive Barker, has also been solidly classed in that category even though his explorations of the spiritual terrors of the soul and the libido qualify him as the Anti-Thomas Merton. Nor has Pahanuik shied from utilizing supernatural plot hooks, such as the poem that kills in Lullaby. For Diary he seems to be referencing Rosemary’s Baby as Misty is kept captive by supposed friends and family, given herbal medication by a sinister doctor and forced to give birth (as it were) to something alien.
Whether the echoes of Ira Levin’s novel are consciously evoked or not they do provide a comfort zone within which Palahniuk’s more outrageous conceits can be couched—but where Levin constructed his story realistically with each new accumulating detail just slightly more disconcerting Palahniuk’s details seem deliciously daft on first blush and only become menacing by degrees. Mysterious warnings appear everywhere that Misty goes; curiously these messages appear to have been left for her by the island’s previous famous residents, both women painters whose success Misty will supposedly replicate. Even her husband has left missives, scrawled within rooms he has sealed off while renovating the vacation homes of the tourists who descend every summer and give Waytansea’s populace its livelihood. Eventually Misty ends up immobilized and painting with her eyes taped shut while others remove and replace fresh canvases from her easel.
Palahniuk has stated his early novels were about the search for identity; Diary is about the horror of finding one, particularly one which may be unwanted or even externally forced on the recipient. For Misty may not so much be creating her paintings as serving as a conduit for some entity which is possibly not—and may never have been—human, an artistic “spirit” older than time. Creativity, Palahniuk suggests, may come from without rather than within since Misty has no better an idea what is forming on her canvasses than Rosemary did of what was growing in her womb. This is scarcely a new idea; Michelangelo once stated his David was already within the marble and he merely chiseled away what didn’t belong while Oriental watercolorists subscribe to the ideas that their bodies merely provide the means for the brushes and pigments to generate the art. Here the mysterious origin of creativity offers more ghastly possibilities.
Like any master illusionist Palahniuk leaves many of his mysteries unexplained even while he places all his clues in plain sight. Further the novel takes the form of Misty’s diary which allows for the possibility, still intact at the end, that she isn’t the most reliable of narrators, a tradition which can be traced back at least to Poe. That analogy is not quite so far-fetched as it may at first seem. Poe, too, was interested in a form of minimalist storytelling though he was far fonder of adjectives than Palahniuk; in Poe the use of those adjectives created a sense of poetic cadence much as the use of repeated words, phrases and themes does for Palahniuk. Despite Poe’s reputation there is more than a little evidence that he considered humorous certain tales which posterity has classified as horror and in Palahniuk’s work there is always the smirking satirist’s wink behind the most appalling occurrences.
Though he describes himself as a minimalist primarily because he eschews adjectives his prose is not so much minimal as carefully considered and makes many other current writers seem mundane (hands up all who are disgusted with the number of contemporary popular writers whose writing makes the average newspaper copy look positively rococo by comparison). And few would have the audacity to insert seemingly irrelevant chapters which amount to stand-alone essays on topics like facial muscles. These chapters fill out Misty as a real human who has accumulated—as have we all—a wealth of pointless knowledge and also keep the reader mis-directed and off-balance, wondering just what is going on.
What’s transpiring is equal parts incisive satire and artistic shell game from an audacious writer whose drawback is his emotional detachment from his characters and situations. It would not violate the rules of satire to be thus involved though it might fly in the face of Post-Modern “cool.” Even his stylistic device of (possibly too) obvious repetition serves to distance both author and reader; Palahniuk may state in interviews that he writes about what “scares the hell” out of him but the tone of his books suggest we should not that deeply frightened nor care that much about his characters. We may pity Misty but her fate fascinates rather than concerns us; the resolution itself is immaterial or at least academic. Lesser writers (such as King) pull off both tricks quite handily but until Palahniuk manages it he will only be a particularly brilliant class prankster and not the major writer—or satirist—he verges on being.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/diary/