The Middlebrow

Chuck Palahniuk

The macho novelist makes a leap of faith.

At the risk of inviting chuckles, groans, and sympathetic glances, let us recount why Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club (and subsequent Brad Pitt movie) was an out-of-body experience for twentysomething males. Palahniuk offered two visions of contemporary manhood. On the one hand, Palahniuk said that we “middle children of history” yearned for ancestral violence, for Old West-style brawling, which we could replicate by congregating in dank basements and beating each other senseless. You might call this muscular nihilism. On the other hand, Palahniuk sketched out a new therapeutic man for the 1990s. What men want, he said, was to wrap their arms around other men, to share their collective grief at being beaten to pieces by women, consumerism, etc. Fight Club read like a collaboration between Mickey Spillane and Joel Osteen—crude and posturing at one instant, and then humane, even tender, at the next.

The canonization of Fight Club allowed Palahniuk to make a career out of mining this niche. And, over the course of six novels, including the brilliant Survivor(1999), he did just that. What’s surprising, then, is that Palahniuk has lately come to reject the cheap thrills of nihilism. Gone are the impossibly hip, world-weary pronouncements of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden.Palahniuk’s new book, Haunted, is a collection of horror stories that owes more to Stephen King. The cheerful nihilist has gone from fight to fright.

Palahniuk (that’s PAULA-nick) declared his intentions last year, in a throwaway sentence in his essay collection Stranger Than Fiction. After recounting the glory bestowed upon him by Fight Club, he wrote, “What’s going out is the cathartic transgressive novel.” With that, he broke with Bret Easton Ellis, Irvine Welsh, and other writers who had vied for the attention of the disaffected youth of the 1990s. Palahniuk further encouraged his own band of disaffected youth—who gather at a Web site called “The Cult”—to join him in shedding their fashionable melancholy. He called on them to “make what Kierkegaard called your Leap of Faith, where you stop living as a reaction to circumstances and start living as a force for what you say should be.” It was a noble sentiment, but a commercially risky one. Palahniuk admits many of his fans came to him because of the goofy sloganeering of Fight Club. What would they think now that their hero threatens to, you know, engage with the world, or something?

A good place to witness Palahniuk’s second act is at his book-signings. The signings have become the stuff of legend in the literary world. This is because unlike, say, Alice Hoffman, Palahniuk sees a book-signing as a venue for profane performance art, the details of which have trickled out on blogs and in newspapers. For example, on a recent tour, Palahniuk read from a story called “Guts,” about a boy who becomes ensnared in a swimming-pool pump while trying to masturbate. By the author’s count, more than four dozen people fainted. At other stops, he autographed plastic vomit. As he prepared to kick off a new tour in Portland, Ore., the other day, Palahniuk sat in his office, wearing shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and explained the new methods he had cooked up to arouse his youthful audience. From a large cardboard box, he produced a handful of teriyaki-beef-scented air fresheners, which were to be passed out by women in mail-carrier uniforms. Then “everyone will be offering their meat to each other to sniff, as lurid as that sounds,” Palahniuk explained.

More than 800 members of “The Cult” gathered that night for the reading in the sanctuary of Portland’s First Unitarian Church. Palahniuk took the pulpit just after 7:30 and began the evening by tossing plastic severed hands into the crowd—a reliable trick, he said, to whip the audience into a frenzy. “Does Norman Mailer throw out severed body parts?” he shouted. “I don’t think so!” After the crowd settled down, Palahniuk read a story from Haunted in which an overzealous Christian falls into a hot spring and watches his skin boil off. Earlier in the evening, Palahniuk had recounted a story about a girl who used a vibrating toothbrush to introduce her fellow Girl Scouts to sexual pleasure. That, too, paled next to his description of a man who feared he had transmitted HIV to his Boston terrier. The legendary Palahniuk signing was not, as one might have feared, a Fight Club-style rally with marauding skinheads. Palahniuk was after a more primal ritual: the mass gross-out.

Indeed, Haunted signals that Palahniuk’s new life-force is the grotesque. The book begins with an epigraph from Edgar Allan Poe and then spins out 23 stories connected by a thin meta-narrative: novelists stranded at a writers’ retreat. (Yaddo meets The Shining!) As the writers begin a campaign of murdering and eating one another, they pause to relate their tragic life stories. A woman says she uses holistic foot rubs to commit murder; a police officer who works with abused children finds that fellow officers have used her anatomically correct dolls as sex partners. Palahniuk tells the stories in spare, pummeling fashion, like a pianist pecking the same false note over and over. “If there’s no way I can read it out loud, then I know I’ve gone far enough,” he said at the reading.

Palahniuk adherents will recognize the author’s skill for button-pushing from his earlier books. Fight Club’s protagonist skulked around terminal-disease support groups; in Survivor, a couple poses as parents of terminally ill children to obtain a free night’s lodging at the Ronald McDonald House. But those theatrics could be read as the outgrowth of the characters’ hipster nihilism—they were living, as Palahniuk might say, as a “reaction to circumstances,” combating the slights society imposed upon them by doing society one better. The characters in Haunted seem to have no particular beef, nor any particulars whatsoever. You can plumb the story of the Christian in the hot spring for religious symbolism, but what primarily excites Palahniuk here is the chance to describe burning flesh with gut-wrenching metaphor. (“The cooked skin of your hands will stick to anything you touch and stay behind, perfect as a pair of leather gloves.”)

Which leads us to the question: What’s the point of doing straight horror, when Palahniuk used to wrap it so skillfully in his own worldview? Palahniuk admits that he wrote the new book to appease the denizens of “The Cult.” (Diary, his previous novel, had been embraced by critics, but it left the fans wanting a bit more blood.) That’s what really nags me about Haunted—that it’s a shade too fine-tuned, too rigorously calculated in its shocks, just like the stories Palahniuk tells at his book-signings. I’m fine with Palahniuk playing to the gallery; I just wish the result were once again—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—the daffy bromides of Fight Club (“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake”). If Haunted is the product of Palahniuk’s engagement with the world, his Kierkegaardian leap of faith, there’s a case to be made that he should unplug. Who knew horror could make you care so much about nihilism?