Reviews

Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories by Chuck Palahniuk

Stephen Rauch

Once you've looked at people on a close enough level, you can't pretend to believe in normality any longer.


Stranger Than Fiction

Publisher: Doubleday
Length: 234
Subtitle: True Stories
Price: $23.95
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
US publication date: 2004-06
Amazon

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.

Music

Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.

Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.