Chuck Palahniuk: Just Shut Up

Postmodern novelist and essayist Chuck Palahniuk is the literary equivalent of a shock jock (a title once puzzlingly bestowed upon me by Ishmael Reed after I dismissed in a Deconstruction Zone column an anthology he had edited), often proudly boasting to the press about the dozens and dozens of audience members who have fainted at the lurid and grotesque imagery he invokes in public readings from novels like Haunted.

The acclaimed author of Fight Club (1999) does not take criticism gladly; when Laura Miller of penned a withering critique of Diary on 20 August 2003, reducing the author’s work to the “half-baked nihilism of a stoned high school student”, a hostile and impetuous Palahniuk wrote a letter to the editors of the online magazine inviting critic Miller to “just shut up” because, you know, he’s just so darn brilliant and until Miller can “create something that captivates people” she has no business expressing her open opinion about the merits of his work.

Well, let’s see Palahniuk bully his way out of this one …

A few nights ago, while conducting late night research for my impending May column – the subject being Marion Meade’s new biography Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – I stumbled upon a most unusual and confounding comment by Palahniuk regarding West’s masterwork, The Day of the Locust (1939), considered by many literary and social historians to be one of the most scathing and spot-on damnations of the Hollywood dream machine ever committed to paper.

Writing in the 2 May 2010 edition of The New York Post under the headline In My Library: Chuck Palahniuk, the author (that the Post lead-in says is “always looking for action, especially when he’s reading”) writes the following summation of Locust:

Don your raccoon coat and jump into the rumble seat of your Stutz-Bearcat for this zany, madcap escapade of nonstop bathtub gin, all-you-can-eat goldfish swallowing and red-hot Jazz Babies with rouged knees. It’s “The Great Gatsby” without the happy ending. I give this tome a solid “10.”

Now, as I have already mentioned, it was late at night – indeed, into the wee hours of the morning – and I had a couple of strong belts of Wild Turkey in me to combat the episode of bronchitis that has befallen me, so I read the paragraph again, slowly, to make sure my eyes and imagination were not swimming in bourbon and causing me to see hallucinatory words on the laptop screen that should not be there.

Alas, the words were there on the screen, exactly as I read them: Chuck Palahniuk thinks Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust is set in the 1920s, which is akin to asserting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are vividly realistic approximations of frontier life in the American west of the 1800s.

Nathanael West began writing his modern classic in late 1936 while working as a $200 a week screenwriter for Republic Pictures (he arrived in Los Angeles in July 1933 after accepting a screenwriting job from Columbia Pictures); Day of the Locust was published in May 1939 and the book is plainly set in the mid-1930s.

What in the hell, I wondered, is Palahniuk talking about and, further, what is he smoking and where can I get some of it?

The Stutz-Bearcat, a popular short wheelbase coupe passenger car and an iconic symbol of the Roaring Twenties in America (along with the raccoon coat), was manufactured between 1912 and 1924. A Stutz-Bearcat is as anachronistic to Day of the Locust as a rocket ship is to Twain’s Tom Sawyer.

“Nonstop bathtub gin” in Palahniuk’s capsule review is, of course, a reference to Prohibition in America, which was enacted in 1920 and not revoked by ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution until 5 December, 1933.

There’s plenty of boozing in West’s Hollywood tale, to be sure, and all of it perfectly legal: at the Cinderella Bar on Western Avenue in Chapter 20 and at famed Musso Frank Grill in Hollywood in Chapter 26 where protagonist Tod Hackett orders “a steak and a double Scotch”. Neat trick during a time of “bathtub gin” when the open sale of alcohol was prohibited, even in lascivious Hollywood

Further, consider West’s description of a minor character, Miss Jenning, in the opening of Chapter Five of Day of the Locust:

“She had been a fairly prominent actress in the days of silent films, but sound made it impossible for her to get work.”

The Jazz Singer, the first official “talkie”, was released by Warner Bros. in 1927. There are no “all-you-can-eat goldfish swallowing” contests and “red hot Jazz babies with rouged knees” are nowhere to be found in Locust, no such symbols of wild-and-crazy 1920s America exist in the novel because the book is set in the time that West composed it: the 1930s.

And what’s with Palahniuk’s “zany and madcap” superlatives? Day of the Locust is as dark as the grave, ending in a bloody riot of the damned and the disenfranchised on Hollywood Boulevard with most of the novel’s lead characters dead or stark raving mad by the last page; even if Palahniuk’s verbiage is accepted as dark sarcasm, such excuses in his defense would still fail to explain all of the allusions to the 1920s in his remarks.

I will allow one concession here: perhaps Palahniuk momentarily confused West’s The Day of the Locust with Joseph Moncure March’s epic poem The Wild Party (1928), a controversial, decadent work that is about Hollywood in the 1920s with plenty of free-flowing bathtub gin but the comparisons between the two works begin and end within the framework of the geological and metaphorical setting.

I give Chuck Palahniuk’s reading comprehension skills a solid “Zero”, and, furthermore, dare I suggest that perhaps he should “just shut up” the next time a publication asks him to divulge what’s on his bookshelf if he has not cracked the spine on any of those books … except the ones with his name on the spine, of course.