Friday, April 30, 2004

Chuck Palahniuk
Survivor (the novel)

Ok, now that I've read 3 of Chuck's novels, I think I can comment fairly.

I think he's a great writer. He's nailed a specific, gripping style. He knows how to construct vivid sentences and stories. His characters - the main characters at least - are usually compelling and realistic. And he's one of the few American writers who seems to know how to do magic realism. (Well, I could argue that Stephen King does, too, but then I'd have to argue with lit. snobs, and that's definitely under the "Life's Too Short" category.) Yeah, Chuck's good, but...

Yes, it's time for the big but.

All of his stories are a downward spiral. Every one I've read begins right at the moment, well ... let me put it this way, there was this way popular one-panel comic that was printed endlessly for years on posters, t-shirts, and greeting cards that showed a sad, hapless schmuck half submerged in a toilet, grasping the flusher, saying, "Goodbye Cruel World." Chuck's characters are variations on that joke, with the tragedy cranked way up and the humor retained in a fetid sort of way. We get to watch them head for the sewer. The soundtrack to each and every one could be The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. And judging from the synopses of his other novels on, they are variations on this theme.

Another way of thinking about it is: he's kinda like the literary version of Lou Reed, cranking out that particular brand of same ol' tune for his devoted following. Too bad for you if you don't dig that tune, though. And I do like some one-note authors because I like the note they play. (Paging Anne Rice!) But, I don't like "you wake up as a giant cockroach in Prague, and die of mortal wound caused by a rotting apple wedged in your back" plotlines. Many lit. major types just can't get enough of that cha-cha, however, so I'm sure Chuck's success is assured. Myself, I prefer my tragedy to be more along the lines of Lear howling at the winds than Gregor expiring in a doorway. Nonetheless, I'll probably give any new ones Chuck writes a try, just to see if he can do anything else. Flaubert would approve of his style, at least, and sometimes that's enough.

Another problem I have with Chuck's literary obsessions is they're kinda like rap music. If you're young, comfortable, affluent, and pissed at the world for no discernable reason, you can enjoy a dark tale of misery and anger because you yourself are safe and the world hasn't slapped you around much, yet. Misery is somehow romantic for a subset of the comfortably numb neophytes. However, if you've experienced real pain and tragedy, you know that the kind of suffering depicted in Chuck's books (and most rap) is ersatz pain. Real pain and loss have a different quality altogether, which is hard to quantify. However, you know the real thing when you see it. Despite its legion of faults, The Deep End of the Ocean does a good job at depicting real anguish, though I don't recommend the book. John Irving also knows how to write about honest pain.

*** WARNING: Spoiler-laden Plot Summary ***

The story of Survivor is the final survivor of a quasi-Christian death cult (think Jim Jones by way of the Amish) who is turned into a new age messiah by an enterprising agent, and with the aid of his reluctant girlfriend who just happens to have the family gift of being able to foresee tragic events, thereby giving him plausibility because he can prognosticate. Our hero ends up being alone on a jet airliner cruising along on autopilot waiting for it to run out of fuel and crash because his reluctant girlfriend told him the only way he could survive is if he survives the crash somehow. The page numbers of the book count backward to the end, to give you a hint as to how it turns out.

*** End of Spoilers ***

I didn't really enjoy the book. Show us something else, Chuck. I know you can.

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