An Open Letter to Chuck Palahniuk
Dear Chuck Palahniuk,
There is a paragraph very near the beginning of your newest novel, Snuff, that really identifies the problem I have with your writing: "You're on the toilet. You're not thinking, and you smear shit on the back of your hanging-down wrinkled ball skin. The more you try to wipe it clean, the skin stretches and the mess keeps getting bigger. The thin layer of shit spreads into the hair and down the thighs."
I'll get back to that quote, but listen: I liked your first three novels quite a bit—Survivor, Fight Club, and Invisible Monsters, I thought, made kind of a trilogy of ridiculous, and somehow bighearted, American nihilism—and while your next novel, Choke, was a misfire akin to other novelists' sophomore slump, you were clearly trying to struggle free from the cynicism that had enveloped your work. You were trying to grow.
So what was it that irrevocably stunted your growth as a writer? Why did you start releasing horrible novels with one-word titles—Haunted, Lullaby, Diary—every year like clockwork? Those three, the second Palahniuk trilogy, were generic gross-out thrillers, and they cemented your reputation as the Jean-Claude Van Damme of novelists; you were a victim of your own formula.
The last novel, Rant, was as perfunctory as an Elvis movie. The plot—something to do with car crashes causing people to time travel—was laughable, and everything that made your first books so exhilarating was by now the equivalent of a literary Starbucks. To write a Palahniuk novel, one just needs a taboo subject, a cast of five main characters who are secretly tied to one another far beyond the reach of reasonable coincidence, and then a string of trivia about an obscure topic like how to clean bodily fluids off of household items.
And here comes Snuff, about five people filming a gangbang who are tied together through secret connections. There's lots of information about porn films. There's a litany of trivia about Hollywood actors who nearly died while filming their roles. And there's a climax so intentionally outrageous that it couldn't have been written with a straight face. No doubt, people will love it because it is—like Mountain Dew and Dane Cook and various other safe and overpackaged products—extreme.
But on your website, you've already announced your 2009 novel, called Pygmy, and I can practically read it right now, and it's boring me to death. You need to stop producing a sloppy novel a year. Take an extra year or two to catch your breath. As it is right now, you're ruthlessly plumbing the depths of your own asshole for ideas.
Chuck Palahniuk reads Thurs May 29, Town Hall, 7:30 pm, free.