Chuck Palahniuk is a very nice man living in a very strange world. If you are a reader or fan of his, you know exactly what I mean. If not, the following description may help. He begins his new novel, “Haunted,” with a story he swears is true. He says he heard it from a guy in a sex-addict support group. Chuck was attending these 12-step-style meetings to do research for his excellent novel, “Choke.”
This early chapter in “Haunted,” titled “Guts,” is about a chronic masturbator whose favorite place to pull on himself is at the bottom of the backyard swimming pool. The lack of oxygen underwater lends itself well to autoerotic asphyxia. He squats over the grate leading to the pool’s vacuum pump and it feels to him like his asshole is being sucked as he goes about his other business.
One day, as he finishes up, our narrator discovers that a snake has emerged from the vacuum pump and attached itself to his ass. If he cannot get to the surface of the pool, he will drown. He looks at the snake holding him captive. It is a long, thick, gray tube of flesh. Inside the tube he sees a bright orange Motrin tablet, some kernels of corn and some peanuts. It is then he realizes that no snake has come out of the pool filter to snag him. Rather, he is looking at his own large intestine, sucked out of his bowel and tethering him to the bottom of the pool. He then chews through his own intestine so as not to drown.
This is the world Palahniuk writes about, and in which, to a large extent (remember, he swears “Guts” is a true story), he lives. In fact, Chuck can no longer read “Guts” at his book signings. Too many people have fainted, breaking bones and chipping teeth once they hit the ground, thrown apart in the heat and sheer disgust of a Chuck reading.
This is Chuck’s world. We who live in it have chosen to do so. Some of us revel in the gore and violence, the stories of cannibalism and sexual deviance and pornography and plastic surgery and murder and addiction. We think it’s funny, and often it is. Since the publication of his debut novel “Fight Club” (and the release of the movie version) in the 1990s, Chuck’s books (and readings) have been a magnet for the alienated, the disaffected, the angry and those with a taste for the absurd.
Are all your fans weirdoes and sickies, Chuck?
“Not at all,” he insists in a recent interview with LEO. “My fans are just people who refuse to turn away from the dark stuff, people who accept a certain amount of ugliness in life.”
Indeed, despite the grotesqueries that he gleefully splashes on page after page, after an hour of talk Chuck strikes me as a pretty normal kind of guy.
Does he routinely get scary types, stalkers or whatnot, coming to his events? “No,” Chuck says pleasantly. “Serial killers and their like don’t tend to be literary-minded.”
He writes in a genre that might fairly be called Squirm Prose or Gulp Fiction. These are the kinds of stories that make people uncomfortable, make them faint (“often because of heat or beer,” Chuck insists). Gulp Fiction forces the reader to ask him or herself why they continue to turn the pages, to keep reading even as the text is causing their guts to churn.
“It’s not disgust with the human body,” he tells me, “It’s my method for developing a close relationship with the reader by making a visceral connection rather than merely an emotional or cognitive one.”
Chuck’s books read like screenplays, replete with special lighting, fade-outs, dissolves, flashes forward and back. Is this an integral part of his style?
“Adopting non-fiction formats,” he says, “allows you to tell an outlandish story and keep it believable because you can always cut to a commercial.” He cites great fakes like Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and “The Blair Witch Project.” “With these non-fiction forms (i.e. fake documentaries, reality show-style), the transitions between scenes and characters take care of themselves.”
William S. Burroughs (seemingly a major influence), when he was defending his cut-up method (a fragmentary, almost random editing style) famously said, “Writing is 30 years behind painting.” That’s because painters — and filmmakers — can use collage techniques and move around in time. Is that something Chuck wants to address?
“I spent years trying to write the omniscient, third-person narrative,” he says, “I just wasn’t happy with what came out. That method didn’t work for me.”
His current style fits the craziness of modern life like a glove — like the glove of flesh that slides free from the hand of the character boiled alive in his story “Hot Potting.” His appearances are legendary. He uses freaky, often disgusting props: prosthetic limbs, sex toys, wigs, fake dog poop, vomit, etc. Yet Chuck proudly calls himself a romantic and claims no political allegiance. His hallucinatory scenarios of the near future suggest a Libertarian or an anarchist. When I jokingly tell him I am a Stalinist, he says, “That’s kind of fascist, isn’t it?”
Palahniuk’s formal experimentation and the sheer bluntness of his subject matter make him one of America’s very best novelists. His worldview can get a bit fascist itself. It can get to be a bit much. His readings, however, remain celebrations of almost anarchic democracy. The unexpected is to be expected.
See for yourself when Carmichael’s Bookstore brings the infamous author to the Clifton Center for a reading and signing tomorrow night. Details are printed elsewhere on this page.
Contact the writer at [email protected]