Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Chuck Palahniuk Experience

Before I discovered Chuck Palahniuk, almost 10 years ago, I didn't have a favourite author. There were a number of writers that I knew and respected, and as a 12 year old I probably would have said Stephen King was the best writer of all time, but I didn't have a true writing idol until I became acquainted with Chuck P's stories. I saw the film adaptation of Fight Club before I even realized that it was based on a book, and upon my first viewing, I definitely didn't 'get' the film, I didn't appreciate it at first the way I would after multiple (like, 100) viewings. Once I became a fan of the film, I went out in search of the source novel, and this is how I met Chuck Palahniuk. One day, I’ll write a more in-depth review of Chuck’s body of work, but today I’ll focus on the man himself.

Chuck Palahniuk is one of those public figures who is much more known for the work he has produced than for his actual name. He’s written a dozen novels, inspired two films, and has written several essays, articles, and personal-narrative pieces, yet people generally don’t recognize the name. Usually when I’m discussing literature and the inevitable ‘So, who do you love reading?’ question comes up, I go right to Chuck Palahniuk, and usually, whoever I’m talking to is put in the awkward position of not having any idea who I’m talking about. Then, when I follow up with, ‘You know, he wrote Fight Club, Choke, etc.’, I’ll either get a polite, ‘Oh, I’ve never read him’, or, ‘I didn’t know those movies were based on books!’. If I’m lucky and I’m speaking to the right person, the name Chuck Palahniuk is met with adoration and shared admiration, though some people do know who he is and hate his style of writing, I can accept that. If I do happen to meet a fellow Palahniuk fan, it’s most likely an instant friendship. His opinionated narrative style and often disgusting and offensive subject matter are quite polarizing for his readers, but I’ve never met anyone who’s luke warm on Chuck Palahniuk. If you know the name, and know his work, you either greatly respect his voice as a writer, or you think he’s a misogynist asshole know-it-all.

The first time I read Fight Club, it was an eye-opening experience for me, as both a writer and a reader. It’s a complicated book, with a non-linear narrative and a lot of heavy themes for a young mind to take in. Skip ahead a decade, now I’ve read his dozen books all multiple times (Exceptions: I’ve only read Diary once, and only made it halfway through Tell-All), and no other writer has ever made more sense to me than he has. With the level of social commentary, character interaction, violence, sexuality, surrealism, horror, and masterfully crafted plotlines that Chuck brings to his work, he helped me realized that there are way less ‘rules’ for writers than I had ever realized. So many scenes and paragraphs and even sentences had me reacting with, ‘You can write that? Really?’ As a writer, it was amazing for me to see the lengths that a successful writer could go in telling his story and sending his message. Since discovering Chuck P, I’ve read much more offensive and disgusting fiction than what he has to offer, but he’ll always have a special place in my mind as the man who showed me how effective offensive writing can be when it has a point.

That all being said, I’m not such a blind fanboy that I can find no fault in Chuck Palahniuk’s writing style. Though I do fully appreciate every effort he puts out, he isn’t always successful in the execution. Anyone that’s familiar with his work knows that Chuck has a few stylistic habits that he likes to reuse in his body of work. A major one of these habits is the repetition of a key line or phrase throughout the story, and usually it’s a series of repeated lines or phrases. In my opinion, this almost always works to really drive home the theme and to create a feeling of unity through the story. However, I’ve had the feeling in a few of his novels that the narrative was getting repetitive and he had already made his point. Also, there’s the ‘gross factor’ in Chuck’s writing, as he really does like to experiment with every type of bodily function that he can think of, and I try to warn new Chuck P readers about this. I personally don’t get disgusted by his writing, but I can see how his blatantly graphic style could turn off the more sensitive readers. While reading Chuck’s collection, I’ve also caught him from time to time falling into the dangerous trap of ‘a writer’s high’, where the flow of the paragraph is so catchy to the writer’s brain that he has a hard time reigning himself in. The effect of giving in to the addictive feeling of the ‘writer’s high’ is that you can come off too clever for your own good, too in love with your own writing that you just can’t stop, you just can’t punctuate that sentence until you’ve said every beautiful thing you have to say, no matter how long it takes or how hard it may be on the reader, you keep writing because you feel like a God of words that can’t be stopped until the rhythm of the amazing sentence you’re writing allows you to stop. (See what I did there? Writer’s high).

Now that I’ve got the criticism out of the way, let me share what I do love about Chuck’s work. First, he has perfected the persona of the anti-hero narrator, the story’s speaker who isn’t someone you’d ever want to know, but you find yourself hanging onto every word. His writing is lively and amusing, full of sharp wit and brutal sarcasm, and although his ideas and concepts are complex and unique, his writing style never has you running for a dictionary just to understand the sentence. And while he may not describe it this way, I find that his writing isn’t just for pure entertainment or escapism, he’s trying to teach his readers about what he believes to be the true nature of our relationships with each other and with this planet we’ve found ourselves on. I definitely don’t always agree with what Chuck says about the world, but at least he has me thinking, attempting to see things in a different way. I also find him to be a huge inspiration when it comes to conceiving female characters. There’s the criticism that his female characters don’t always sound authentic and that they are clearly written by a man, but I like his type of odd, flawed, quirky females, even if they aren’t completely realistic, he puts a new twist on the female voice.

It’s the sad truth that even our favourite artists won’t have their talent forever, every band or actor or writer eventually declines, it’s natural and any fan of anything almost comes to expect it. Chuck Palahniuk’s golden era of novels, the way I see it at least, starts with Fight Club and ends with his masterpiece, Rant. The novels that came after that (Snuff, Pygmy, Tell-All, Damned) still show quality work and prove that Chuck P has a lot left to say, but he’s also seemed to have lost a bit of his fire from the early days. Maybe because I was a young angry male reading his version of angry males and it made sense to me, but I find his newer work to be a bit harder to relate with. His recent novels have been more like comedic episodes than grand statements about humanity, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he’s obviously grown into himself as a writer and isn’t as bitter about the world anymore, that’s natural. For as long as Chuck wants to fill the blank page with his psychotic imaginings, I’ll be following him. And as long as I have access to his body of work, I’ll have clear inspiration for why I want to write and the type of writer I want to be.

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