[8 June 2004]
For anyone who has read any of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels: Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Survivor, Choke, Lullaby, or Diary, it will come as little surprise that Palahniuk has an eye for nonfiction. His stories are filled with the kind of journalistic detail that borders on excess: long lists of cleaning tips, or covert emergency procedures, or symptoms for obscure diseases fill each of his novels and set the scene the same way a reporter does. So Stranger Than Fiction, Palahniuk’s first nonfiction book and a collection of the journalism pieces he’s written between novels, actually seems more like a companion piece to any of his fiction than a completely different animal altogether (since, after all, fiction and nonfiction are supposed to be opposites).
The first thing Palahniuk writes in his introduction is “if you haven’t already noticed, all my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.” This also serves as a rationale for his nonfiction, as the pieces collected in Stranger Than Fiction all involve, as he says, some sort of connection between people. People connecting on the amateur wrestling circuit. At a town’s annual harvest combine demolition derby. Through an interest in building castles. Or rocket ships. Serving on a submarine. Taking steroids. Or at a Montana “Testicle Festival.”
In all of these stories, Palahniuk maintains his incredible eye for detail, and it’s less often the grand themes than the minutiae of the experiences involved (hustling for grocery receipts to obtain cheap protein while on steroids, pissing in a submarine), that gets the message across. And still, some common themes emerge. In a way, whatever people do is just an excuse to get together. There aren’t a while lot of things we can all do anymore, and this keeps it going as much as anything else. All in the weirdest places you could ever hope to find.
Stranger Than Fiction also includes several interviews and profiles or people, both famous (Juliette Lewis, Marilyn Manson) and not (a woman and dog team who help find survivors and bodies in disaster sites). Here, Palahniuk is almost completely invisible, and while he is still the one telling the story, he seems to just allow his subject to talk. Of course, “objectivity” in journalism is constantly being debated (in terms of how desirable it is, and whether or not it is even possible), but it reminds the reader of something: Most of the time, we’re so busy trying to shoehorn people into some mental category that we don’t really listen to them at all (as the narrator of Fight Club says, usually when you’re talking, people are just waiting for their turn to talk).
At one point, Marilyn Manson comments on the connections drawn between him and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine shooters, “People always ask me, ‘What would you have said to them if you could talk to them?’ and my answer is, ‘Nothing. I would’ve listened.’ That’s the problem. Nobody listened to what they were saying. If you’d listened, you’d have known what was going on.” (A bit preachy, yes, but one of the very few truly insightful things said about the whole incident.)
Again, these profiles tend to touch on what we think of as the “extreme” or “oddball” end of thought and action. As do a series of personal reflections: reminiscences of hearing about his father’s murder, incidents of the set of the Fight Club movie, passing a kidney stone at home, in his bathtub, with a steady supply of champagne and Vicodin, and the summer he jumped whole hog into steroids until he noticed his balls starting to shrink. The impulse towards complete self-destruction is as present here as in any of his novels, like the fashion model in Invisible Monsters who shoots off her own jaw because she’s tired of being beautiful, or the men in Fight Club who beat each other into a bloody pulp.
And, since we’re in the age of the confessional, it appears that Chuck Palahniuk is as damaged as any of the characters in his novels. As damaged as, well, the rest of us. But that’s just the five-minute version. That just gets you in the door. The real story is what you do after that. What happens when you hit bottom, and everything collapses around you? You start rebuilding. If all the old institutions that used to bring people together are hollow and corrupt beyond repair, and, let’s face it, they are, then we just make new ones. And if we’re starting over, we might as well do it while watching old harvest combines smash into each other. Or building castles, or homemade space rockets, for that matter. It’s one of those truisms of our age that it doesn’t matter what you find meaning in, as long as you find it somewhere. And while everyone claims to believe it, the real test of the idea is just how far you’re willing to take it. And the people profiled in Stranger Than Fiction would say, As far as it takes.
So in the end, the lives and stories documented here are actually pretty inspirational. Wholesome, even. The people involved in whatever it is they are doing come out okay. Even when they don’t. And if society has crumbled around us, then it also means we’re free. And while the forces of conservatism warn that this kind of total freedom will just lead to rampant lawlessness and violence, the truth seems to be something infinitely weirder.
That’s the other lesson of Stranger Than Fiction; once you’ve looked at people on a close enough level, you can’t pretend to believe in normality any longer. The people in the orgies at the Testicle Festival or trying to sell the screenplays of their lives in seven minutes are sane, normal people. Heterosexual, Christian, bright, kind, God-fearing people. Lawyers. Accountants, even. Except for the one thing. As normal as any of us, as much as the John Ashcrofts of the world try to tell us that we’re all normal, and it’s just a small bunch of freaks who do this kind of shit. We are the weirdos.
In his blog, comics writer Warren Ellis has a running quest to find the sickest, most depraved thing currently being done in the world of porn. In the most recent entry, which apparently involved eels (the link went down before I could get access to a fast enough connection, for which I am profoundly grateful), he lays out two possible explanations for this. The first is that we’re hurtling towards an imminent apocalypse. This is the one that most people seem to be saying. However, the second one may be even more disturbing: This is simply the way the world is now. This is normal. And we’re all just going to have to live with it.
And you know, once you get used to the idea, it’s not so bad. Not bad at all.