The Unexpected Romantic: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk
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If there is an identity crisis among young men in America, and an ideology that goes with it, then there is no better place to start one's education than the novels of Chuck Palahniuk.
At least that's what I thought before I met Palahniuk.
The day was bright. The weather was fine. The author of Fight Club, or the "torchbearer for the nihilistic generation," as he has been called, looked impossibly mild: light green eyes beaming from a frank handsome face, soft brown hair wisping casually at the shoulders, a literary sort of sports coat draped over a healthy, medium frame, a forgiving handshake to my a 10 minutes' lateness; in other words, not a revolutionary. Not even, to my chagrin, an angry young man.
"I am the biggest romantic you're probably ever going to meet," Palahniuk said in response to my question about why the themes of his novels tend to divine from Dante's eighth circle. "I go to my signings and hand out packets of seeds. And I send more flowers than any 100 people together."
Well, that's nice. But it didn't answer my soon-to-be nagging question about why Palahniuk, since his debut novel in 1996, has specialized in male characters who are undisguised sexual deviants, schizophrenics, con artists, lost revolutionaries, misanthropes, drug addicts, anti-consumerists and cynics. The 38-year-old writer from Portland definitely has much more in common with Denis Johnson than Danielle Steel, even if he is fond of flowers.
"My novels are all romantic comedies," said Palahniuk (pronounced Paul-a-nick), attempting further explanation. "But they're just romantic comedies that are done with very dysfunctional, dark characters."
"Actually," added Palahniuk, "my characters are still playing in a very classic sort of boy-gets-girl scenario, or girl-gets-boy scenario."
With that remark, I set aside my questions about the sources of his dark subjects and literary influences (which include Kierkegaard, Camus, Foucault and Susan Faludi's book on contemporary masculinity, Stiffed) and proceeded to ask him how this was possible. But before I get ahead of myself, a few words about his books....
Palahniuk's first and best novel, "Fight Club," achieved renown because it zeroed in on the lesser noticed features of Gen X, especially those of the men -- and it is far from a romantic comedy. The novel centers on one Tyler Durden, a fast-talking anarchist out to convert a generation "raised by women" into real men. To achieve this, Tyler lectures ad nauseam on the evils of consumer capitalism (it homogenizes, feminizes, makes us dumb) and commences a series of bloody boxing nights, which allow him and his followers to beat the crap out of each other with the purpose of reasserting their culturally repressed male energy. One of my favorite Tyler Durden speeches reads:
"We don't have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression."
Fight Club was a hit because it addressed American spiritual malaise directly with a stripped-down prose that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald would have approved. It also gave voice to many of the sentiments that Faludi addressed in Stiffed: a sense among men that the post-war, post-feminist, commercial-soaked world has made them powerless and weak. The book has reached cult status, thanks to fans who Palahniuk says are "mostly skater kids and middle-aged men." And if there was a boy-gets-girl story that drove the plot, it eluded most critics.
Many of the above characteristics are true for Palahniuk's next two novels. Survivor follows the transformation by PR hacks of a death cult's last surviving member into a pretty-boy media messiah, and addresses, Nietzsche style, the death of religion by commerce. Invisible Monsters, a story about a barbiturate-popping transvestite and deformed model, tackles the increasingly rich theme of fluid sexual identity. "My audience is probably the complete opposite of the Oprah Winfrey demographic," said Palahniuk, mulling over those attracted to his work.
Palahniuk's latest book, Choke, does not stray from previous territory. It is about a sex addict named Victor Mancini, who by day works as an Irish indentured servant at an historical theme park named Colonial Dunsboro and by night attends 12-step meetings for sexual compulsives in between utilitarian trysts with girls named Nico and Leeza. Victor's mother is a damned member of the '60s generation: a revolutionary wanna-be who earned her living as a guided-experience masturbation therapist. She is dying, and to pay for her medical bills, Victor scams money off innocents who think they've saved him from choking to death.
Choke reads like an updated version of Philip Roth 1967 sexual rant, Portnoy's Complaint (a book Palahniuk says he has not read), or at least it has more digressions on screwing and crapping -- as well as mother obsession -- than any recent novel in memory. And like Portnoy, Victor is humorously ambivalent about his sexual-scatological habits, but his opinions on women are firm: they are oppressive, suffocating and generally out to corner defenseless men.
"I mean how many times can everybody tell you that you're the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy? " asks Victor. "[I]n a world without God, aren't mothers the new god?" he pleads. "Women are already born so far ahead ability wise. The day men can give birth, that's when we can start talking equal rights."
Palahniuk talked about Choke with the same dreamy incandescence as he did his other books, but he would say nothing clear about why Victor is in such a peculiarly male rage. "Victor is so completely living to fulfill the expectations of people around him," he said. "He's fulfilling the expectations of women in his group who want sex, he's fulfilling the expectations of his mother, the people he works with. He completely defines himself by external things."
And so, according to Palahniuk, Choke is not so much a bitterly witty commentary on contemporary masculinity and sexuality but a novel about Victor's quest to "redefine himself as himself from himself." I am floored.
Yet what seems plausible after an hour of conversation with Chuck Palahniuk is that his demons -- the ones that drive him to create characters like Tyler Durden and Victor Mancini -- are so thoroughly exorcized in his writing that they do not have much of a life off the page. In fact, they almost seem wiped from his consciousness, given the way Palahniuk talks about his novels.
Whether this is true is of course impossible to verify, but Palahniuk's past provides clues. His father, who worked for the railroad, and his mother, who works at a nuclear reactor, fought frequently and violently -- so much that he and his siblings went to live on their grandparents' cattle ranch in eastern Washington. Three years ago, his father was murdered along with his girlfriend in Kendrick, Idaho. Their bodies were incinerated in a burning building and later identified through dental records. In a 1999 Los Angeles Times essay, Palahniuk revealed another gruesome family incident: as a 4-year-old boy, Fred Palahniuk hid under his bed while his own father killed his mother with a shotgun.
Palahniuk explained he has been able to write about these incidents in both essay and fiction form because he believes hiding them is fruitless. "Marshall McLuhan had this really interesting phrase," he said. "When a stripper takes off her clothes, the viewers become her clothes." Adds Palahniuk: "I feel that by showing these things, I create an opening for people to share their things with me."
This idea of sharing what is painful or strange is central to Palahniuk's fictions. He says his research for Choke took place mostly at the gym, where after telling some fellow stairmasterer or weight lifter that he was writing a novel about sex addicts, he would be inundated with stories of their own sex addiction.
"I wonder if it's just another way to kill time because, you know, all our needs are met," said Palahniuk, referring to people's fascination with casual sex. "We're just running out the clock now, and until we actually make that jump to a cause, we're just paying the bills and jacking off and eating three square meals a day. Unless we chart our lives to something, we're just animals in the zoo."
But this does not explain why Palahniuk's characters in Choke (and in his three previous novels) are themselves animals in a zoo. Victor and his mother are pawns in a sexually dysfunctional culture, which drives him to passionless sex and her to selling fantasies of sex as a form of therapy. There is no catharsis for them, and Victor never attaches himself to a cause (or a woman), though at the end he thinks he probably should.
Still, Palahniuk is adamant that Choke is a romantic comedy and even that out of "our cynical, sarcastic, ironic time" will come "the most romantic time we've ever witnessed." In his defense, he argued that he believes it is impossible to write novels that address romance without irony and cynicism. "You can't manipulate someone into feeling something in a real obvious way anymore," he said. "People are so aware of devices and they resent them. I blame the movies. God, Forrest Gump was one long emotional handjob."
Instead, Palahniuk believes readers these days seek a visceral, even physical, reaction to prose, which is why he tries to make his sentences sting and why, perhaps, there is very little tenderness in the world he creates. "You have to unfold a world of unrest, disgust, un-wellness before you can have an epiphany of well-being," said Palahniuk.
I have yet to have a feeling of well-being after finishing a Chuck Palahniuk novel, but I have had the sense that he can flesh out provocative themes that percolate just beneath the surface of American culture: about the alienation that stems from a highly sexualized advertising culture, about the rush to consume that leaves people feeling empty, about a generation of young men whose struggle to define themselves is perhaps more complicated than people know.
These days when Palahniuk is not writing, he told me he is creating a "garden of ruins." It is outside the house he owns and shares with his friends in Portland. There he builds partial doorways, walls and windows, which from the dampness of Oregon quickly become covered in green moss. Palahniuk's garden, this odd hobby, is obviously a living metaphor of his life and work: it is a dreamscape of creation and destruction; a place where he can feel the romanticism that comes, as he hopes comes in his novels, after long bouts of violence and chaos.