Mischief and Punches and Body Functions: Palahniuk's Back
Cannibalism, self-mutilation, dismemberment, and horrible things happening to newborns. What exactly is Chuck Palahniuk's point?
Chuck Palahniuk's new novel, Haunted, is poised to be one of the most successful literary novels of the year. Prior to its release, the book was ranked in the top 60 bestsellers on Amazon.com; such anticipation so rare for writers not named King, Grisham, or Rowling. With his revolution of mischief and punches and body functions steadily sealing its foothold in popular culture, Palahniuk and Haunted are getting the star treatment with high-profile features and publications in most of the major media outlets.
Palahniuk's revolution began with his Fight Club, published in 1996. From the moment in the book's film adaptation, when Brad Pitt stood in a dirty bar parking lot, wearing a cool leather jacket, and said: "I want you to do me a favor -- I want you to hit me as hard as you can", people knew the first rule was not to talk about it, but they couldn't stop themselves from talking about the writer behind the fists. Described by Barry Hannah as an "amazing and artful disturbance", the novel kick-started the growing cult, but it was the film that would bring Palahniuk's ideas of mayhem to a wider audience. Since that book, the author has galvanized that audience, energized the literary world, and knocked out, literally, readers with his particular blend of literary pyrotechnics.
Survivor and Invisible Monsters continued the tradition, before the author managed a six-figure deal for Choke, his first novel after the success hit. The book went on to sell over 100,000 copies. Lullaby and Diary followed, along with non-fiction books, Fugitives and Refugees and Stranger than Fiction. Palahniuk's influence and success persisted.
Haunted: A Novel
by Chuck Palahniuk
May 2005, 404 pages, $24.95
So, what is it that brings readers back for more, that makes a book like Haunted so widely desired? Palahniuk's major strength lies in the bizarre but yet very realistic situations he nightmares up. This is, after all, the man who explained (in Lullaby) Sudden Infant Death Syndrome as an ancient mystical spell used to cull out the weak and weary of a society. The fact that, in our day and age, infants were involved was merely a misapplication of a tool that had worked successfully for past civilizations. Haunted takes up a similar bizarre set of circumstances. A group of aspiring writers, desperate like so many are, to get published and become famous sign up for a writer's retreat. The sign said, "Gamble a small fraction of your life on the chance to create a new future as a professional poet, novelist, screenwriter. Before it's too late, live the life you dream about." It often seems like there are more people writing in this country than there are people reading, and Palahniuk takes his sample of this massive group, yearning for a spot on the bestseller list and the morning shows and uses them to illustrate what happens when ambition goes awry.
The participants in this workshop are spirited away to an isolated and decrepit old theater where they are held captive. As the circumstances within the theater get more desperate, so do the stories they tell. Haunted is a novel, but it is comprised of the stories told by the participants -- imagine taking a writing workshop and tying together everyone's stories. Now imagine that same workshop without food, heat, or contact with the outside world. Throw in some knives, a video camera, a tape recorder, and a bunch of people willing to do anything to be the star of their own reality show and you've got Haunted.
Obviously, the book isn't for the faint-of-heart. Multiple acts of cannibalism (in fact some characters get to feast on their own flesh), self-mutilation, dismemberment, stewed-newborn-babies, "slivers of wood, thin as needles, embedded in the walls of her vagina", and people exploding from their guts expanding exponentially -- these are just some of the dinner-table quality adventures in the book. This kind of frankness works at times to create sensations not usually encountered in mainstream lit, but other times, the lack of restraint seems to translate to piling on the gore, like a cheap imitation of an early Wes Craven movie -- if a gallon of blood was used in the first death scene, then the second murder has to have at least five gallons!
Fans of Palahniuk shouldn't be surprised. By now, they know what they're getting, and this discussion isn't an attempt to say these topics shouldn't be featured. There is a delicate balance, thin as the edge of a scalpel, between using violence effectively and going overboard. Palahniuk needs these acts, but turns up the volume on them a little too much. As the pages of Haunted wear on, the violence and gore loses its effect. Palahniuk seems to sense this and continually ups the ante on each atrocity to the point of absurdity. When one character chops off his own penis and a second character gulps the dismembered member down in an attempt to eat and subsequently chokes, the reader doesn't know whether to laugh, to vomit, or just say enough's enough and put the book down.
This violence, particularly the self-inflicted acts, is crucial to the plot. After realizing this is no ordinary writing conference, the participants in this retreat quickly make plans for the inevitable TV movie chronicling their harrowing experience. And in today's culture, with murder, kidnapping, and torture a regular feature on the nightly news, the participants are savvy enough to know that it takes extremes to get on The Today Show. Look at that hiker who cut off his arm to escape from being trapped in the wilderness. He's a hero. So, the retreat participants might ask, what's the big deal if I cut off some fingers? They plan, scheme and prepare for "when that alley door opens, we'll be famous. When we hear the lock turn, then the sliding rollers squeal... then we'll have our story ready to sell. Our death-camp cheekbones ready for our best-profile close-up."
Satirical vision is another one of Palahniuk's strengths and in this way, he eviscerates our reality-television-culture with the skill of the professional chef character who butchers his fellow participants. As the days progress, each character has to outdo the others, one-up each other in terms of suffering if they want to be main character in the movie version.
As the characters become convinced that their rescue is imminent, they rush around in a flurry of mutilations and abuse. As The Earl of Slander says, "Hurry and give me the chopper... I still have time to suffer some more." An argument breaks out and the fame-obsessed participants quibble over a meat cleaver like boys in kindergarten tugging on a fire truck. The Matchmaker responds "Don't rush me... You guys had your chance to suffer. It's my turn now." And like those boys in kindergarten, the fire truck's owner shows up to end the argument when the Chef steps into the fray. "Then suffer already... Or give me my cleaver back. That is my cleaver."
As a sort of sub-level to the satire, Palahniuk also trains his critical gaze on an element of the publishing industry within the pages of Haunted. With so many young writers becoming literary celebrities despite the fact they haven't actually written very much, with memoirs being penned by people who haven't been on the planet long enough to remember a time before the internet, with so many people who claim desperately to want to be a writer even though they don't actually write, it's no coincidence that the retreat participants identify a way to use this experience: "Even if we never sparked a good idea, never wrote our masterpiece novel, this three months trapped together could be enough to make a memoir." Anne Bird, whose only reason to "write" a book was the fact that she is half-sister to Scott Peterson, gets on the bestseller list and is a shining example to the characters in Palahniuk's book. You don't have to be a good writer, you don't have to create good ideas, you just have to be involved in some particular circumstance.
The language in Haunted is classic Palahniuk, which makes it a great introduction for new readers but may turn out to be a bit of a turnoff for longtime fans. The voice and style that was so innovative in Fight Club is still here. Some readers will applaud and some readers will cringe. The same language, followed by esoteric facts and urban legends, repeats. Many longtime fans have voiced desires to see Palahniuk move forward and try new directions in his writing, and there is quite a bit of validity to that suggestion. Palahniuk is a fairly prolific author so the rabid fans who follow his every word definitely hear the same notes and same chords being played over and over. But, at the end of the discussion, criticisms about repetition in style are usually muted by two very important observations.
First, the fact of the matter is that Chuck Palahniuk has gotten many people to read who do not usually follow contemporary literature. Like Irvine Welsh in Scotland, he has literally created a new audience for himself and other writers by bringing new people into the bookstores and sharing the spotlight with other excellent writers like Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, Joey Goebel and others. These writers can stand on their own, they aren't protégés or apprentices, and this isn't to say they owe allegiance to Palahniuk. They are writers who are in some respects surpassing Palahniuk in terms of originality and voice. But Palahniuk proved to the publishing industry that there is a market for edgy, probing, risk-taking fiction and this group of writers has benefited from his success.
Second, the fact of the matter is that Haunted is a satire of our fame obsessed culture. The violence and gore does seem to go overboard but the nightly news does as well. Each week seems to feature headlines about school shootings with higher body counts, people tortured beyond the limits of comprehension, and the inevitable attempts to cash-in on those tragedies. Although reading the continually more and more revolting acts in Haunted sometimes makes it a chore to get through, so can observing our culture at large.