I LENT A FRIEND A DRAFTED chapter of a Chuck Palahniuk novel-in-progress. Chuck had given it to me in our writing group. Later, I asked my friend how she liked it. She said, "Jesus, I had nightmares for two weeks." I couldn't tell if that meant she liked what she read or not, but, as ever, I was in complete admiration of Chuck and the strength of the words he lays on a page. It's hard enough to hold a reader's attention, much less conjure up two weeks of nightmare imagery.
The power of Chuck Palahniuk's writing comes from the truth that lies behind his hard-edged sentences and the mechanics of his twisting plots. And he's not afraid of big ideas. In his two novels Fight Club and Survivor, the plots juxtapose social conventions against anti-social impulses, raising questions about the meaning of life, the existence of free will, the purpose of consumerism and material comfort, and how humans manage to live at all with the knowledge of the inevitability of their own deaths. Characters lurk at the fringe of the psychologically real, offering enough in the way of motivation and reaction to keep the plot careening forward, but pared of any emotional excess that might slow the novel's overall rush. In his most recent novel, Survivor, the main character is a man whose entire projected lifetime is pre-drafted to schedule--first in an employer's daily planner and later by his agent. This narrator says, "...everything in your life turns into an item on a list... the itinerary for the rest of your life.... Seeing it in black and white, somehow you're always disappointed in your life expectancy. How little you'll really get done."
I asked Chuck if he thought it was fair to say his work was more about ideas than character. I said, "I wouldn't want to underestimate your connection to your characters." Chuck said, "Yeah. I love my characters," but he said it like he didn't mean it, like he meant exactly the opposite. I said, "Right. You love your characters so much you leave them dead in the middle of the book, in a cloud of ammonia and bleach." And Chuck laughed. He said, "That's right," this time meaning an obvious "no, not really." He said, "You won't catch me talking about my characters like they're living, like they're hanging out at my elbow while I write."
Chuck lives in a house that, until recently, had cinderblock walls. Over a single frenetic weekend he covered the walls with perfectly measured and mitered bits of molding and inset wooden panels. He even outlined electrical outlets in molding, reproducing the drawing room of a historic house from a Merchant Ivory film. His house is beautiful, and the way he worked on it--fast, precise, planned--is exactly the way he conceives of and constructs a novel. He has the idea that every chapter should work as a short story, standing alone, and that every novel should be able to hold up in a condensed short-story version.
His writing is a tightly-meshed combination of fiction and heavily researched fact--how to change reels in an old movie theater, how to build a bomb, how to have a sex change, how to speak without a lower jaw, how to calculate insurance for a recall campaign. His books could best be shelved under "fiction/reference." He gets a lot done all at once, often by making characters say the opposite of what they really mean. When, in Survivor, guys repeat to each other, as a greeting and blessing, "May you die with all your work complete," they actually illuminate the futility of a world in which work is never complete. There's no hope of mowing the lawn with a sense of finality, polishing silver, dusting, or taking out stains once and for all. Even at death, chores go on without the servant. Or, when Chuck turns his narrator's eye toward nature, he underscores how far removed from nature his characters are: "Some kind of blue-colored birds are walking around the lawn as if they're looking for a lost contact lens."
Chuck says his goal is to make people suspicious of things they never thought twice about before. "Like the soap, in Fight Club," he says, referring to the over-priced product he's invented, made from salvaged human liposuction fat. "I want to make people question the ordinary. That's the goal of art, isn't it?"
By asking readers to live an examined life, even when Chuck Palahniuk slows the definition of suicide in Survivor down to a lifetime of self-inflicted choices, and when he offers the cancer-support-group experiences of near-death and the brutality of Fight Club, he's presenting not despair, but the homeopathic antidote for despair. It's in the form of a fast and passionate shove toward nightmares of death and disfigurement, which may ultimately lead back toward a greater awareness while living.