Palahniuk, Chuck 1962–
Palahniuk, Chuck 1962–
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "paul-ah-nik"; born February 21, 1962, in Pasco, WA; son of Fred (a railroad brakeman) and Carol (an office manager at a nuclear power plant) Palahniuk. Education: University of Oregon, received journalism degree, 1986.
ADDRESSES: Home—Portland, OR. Agent—Edward Hibbert, Donadio and Olson, Inc., 121 West 27th St., Ste. 704, New York, NY 10001.
CAREER: Novelist. Briefly worked for a newspaper in Gresham, OR; worked for Freightliner as a service documentation specialist for thirteen years; appeared as rapper "Chucky P." on BBC Radio.
MEMBER: National Cacophony Society.
AWARDS, HONORS: Oregon Book Award, and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, both for Fight Club; Bram Stoker Award nomination for best novel, Horror Writers Association, 2002, for Lullaby.
Fight Club, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
Invisible Monsters, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
Survivor, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
Choke, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.
Lullaby (first in a trilogy), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
Diary, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2003.
Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, Crown (New York, NY), 2003.
Stranger Than Fiction, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Gear, Playboy, Portland Mercury, Independent, L.A. Weekly, and Black Book.
ADAPTATIONS: Fight Club was released as a film in 1999.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Two more novels to complete the trilogy begun with Lullaby.
SIDELIGHTS: The author of several unconventional novels as well as a quirky hometown travelogue and a collection of essays on Hollywood cult figures, Chuck Palahniuk began his writing career with the apocalyptic novel Fight Club, which became a cult classic and the basis of the 1999 Hollywood film by the same name. It features a secret fight club in which men beat each other bloody and whose members eventually develop into an anarchist army that is funded by selling soap made of liposuctioned human fat. Palahniuk's subsequent works have featured equally shocking and bizarre premises, and are also sustained by the author's black humor and cynical viewpoint. On the heels of the film, Palahniuk quickly published three more novels, Invisible Monsters, Survivor, and Choke. These works were also reportedly considered to be serious candidates for screen adaptations.
In the wake of Fight Club, Palahniuk has repeatedly been called on to tell his own story, in which he once despaired of ever becoming a novelist. His job documenting diesel service procedures left little time for writing. He thought about waiting to write until he retired, but came to the conclusion that he might die before that happened. So Palahniuk snatched moments in waiting rooms, laundromats, and traffic jams, squeezing in the work whenever he could. He sent a manuscript to a publisher and it was rejected, presumably because of its rather shocking content. Instead of feeling discouraged, Palahniuk got mad and decided to send the publisher an even more outrageous story. The novel Fight Club was the result.
Palahniuk has also related how life experiences have inspired his novels. Fight Club was born of Palahniuk's own fights, and of the lack of response his bruised and bloody face got from coworkers. He told Salon.com writer Sarah Tomlinson that he realized "you could really do anything you wanted in your personal life, as long as you looked so bad that people would not want to know the details. I started thinking of a fight club as a really structured, controlled way of just going nuts in a really safe situation." However, in Fight Club this "safe" pastime has frightening consequences. The unnamed narrator has a bland, unhappy life, and has been seeking solace, however undeserved, by faking terminal illness at support-group meetings. He befriends Tyler Durden, an unpredictable young man who suggests starting the fight club. It is Durden who starts having an affair with Marla, a woman the narrator met at a meeting where he claimed to have testicular cancer. The fight club inspires countless others and it turns out that Durden has larger, destructive plans for his army of thousands of nihilists. He unveils Project Mayhem, a plan to terrorize corporate America by attacking the world's tallest building.
Critics described Fight Club as both disturbing and fascinating. A Publishers Weekly writer warned that almost any reader was likely to find something offensive. The reviewer called the book "caustic, outrageous, bleakly funny, violent and always unsettling" as well as "utterly original." In a Booklist review, Thomas Gaughan described Fight Club as "gen X's most articulate assault yet on baby-boomer sensibilities" and a work sure to disturb young readers' parents. He concluded that it was "powerful, and possibly brilliant."
A Guardian Unlimited article by Stuart Jeffries considered the literary and social relevance of Fight Club. Jeffries called the novel "the 90s reply to American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis's satire on youthful white-collar greed and banality in Wall Street in the 80s." His interview with Palahniuk revealed that the author has read Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus; and Jeffries felt that "it shows in his nihilistic insistence on destroying lifestyles that serve nobody well, and recognizing the importance of mortality." The reviewer also remarked that the book "has proven appealing to men of a certain age. At times it seems to be exclusively about men whose fathers were absent during their childhoods." Moreover, Jeffries surmised that at several points the novel "suggests that all-male clubs are the only way men can reestablish their male potency."
Concern about the impact of Fight Club increased with the release of the feature film. The emergence of copycat clubs did not disturb Palahniuk, who believes their members were probably already expressing their violent impulses in other, more dangerous ways. However, a rumor emerged that Twentieth Century-Fox delayed the film's release following the tragic shootings at Columbine High School. In an interview for the Orlando Weekly Movies, Palahniuk indirectly commented on the possibility of links between his writing and such acts of violence. He called the fight club experience "an honest, consensual violence…. It's not victimizing violence. It's not a chickenshit walking into a crowded place full of helpless people with a gun."
The author's second novel, Survivor, is also a violent, darkly comic, bitter picture of American life. Its chapters proceed in reverse chronological order, beginning with forty-seven, and the pages begin with number 289 and end with one. Thus, the reader is introduced to the protagonist Tender Branson moments before his death, as his plane is about to crash into the Australian desert. Branson is telling his story into the jet's black box, explaining how he came to be the last living member of the Creedish Death Cult. His story is outrageous: as a Creedalist, he became an unpaid servant in exchange for donations to the church; slave labor charges and an FBI raid on the Creedish compound resulted in a mass suicide; media interest in Branson turned him into a celebrity and book-selling, self-help guru. But it is also revealed that the cult suicides may in fact be murders, and that Branson's brother Adam may be a survivor and a serial killer.
Reviews of Survivor were enthusiastic, although Fight Club sometimes cast a shadow over the new novel. A Kirkus Reviews writer called the book "brilliant, engrossing, substantial, and fun" and asserted that "Palahniuk carves out credible, moving dramas from situations that seemed simply outlandish and sad on the evening news." In the Oregonian, Frank Bures suggested that with Survivor Palahniuk "demonstrates his ranges as a writer." Bures compared Fight Club's "twisted carpe diem" to this novel's "ironic laments." The reviewer concluded, "If there is a central theme to Survivor, it is … disgust at superficiality and sameness. Yet it gets lost among the other questions raised about free will, fate, mindless following, religious hypocrisy, death and other existential, if tangential, matters." Village Voice writer Lily Burana was disappointed by what followed a fascinating open: "Problem is, once it is revealed that Tender is the last surviving Creedish, the book becomes predictable. The narrative swerves from the deft, carefully imagined satire of a tiny, workaday life and plunges straight into a 'Toontown-like hyperbolic broadcast of living large before the masses." At the review's end, she also pondered whether "many young-adult readers—hungry kids trapped in suburban and rural America … might make a cult hero of Palahniuk."
The original manuscript for Palahniuk's third novel, Invisible Monsters, was the story that publishers rejected prior to Fight Club. Palahniuk was glad to have had the chance to improve the novel, and rewrote over three-quarters of the book before submitting it. In part a satirical stab at the fashion industry, the novel was conceived after its author sat reading fashion magazines at his local laundromat. Commenting on the novel in the Village Voice, Palahniuk called Invisible Monsters "a Valley of the Dolls book, a summer beach book…. Don't take it very seriously." However, he also noted it was inspired by his reading of French philosopher Michael Foucault and Foucault's exploration of identity.
Like Survivor, Invisible Monsters begins at its story's end; however, it then reveals episodes in Shannon Mc-Farland's life in a random sequence. Shannon is a former model who lost the lower half of her face in a shooting. She is left without a career and is filled with anger at her ex-boyfriend Manus and her ex-girlfriend Evie, who had an affair after the shooting. Convinced that the pair may be responsible for her wounds, Shannon goes on a cross-country road trip with a new friend, the transgendered Brandy Alexander. Their goal is to confront Evie in Texas, where she is about to be married. In the process, Shannon and Brandy kidnap Manus and start secretly feeding him female hormone pills. In the process, it is revealed that Brandy is Shannon's brother, whom she had believed was dead of AIDS.
The plot's twists and jumps left many reviewers on the fence about Invisible Monsters. In the San Francisco Chronicle, James Sullivan said, "All this roughhousing will make readers punch-drunk by the book's climax. It's Palahniuk's least successful effort to date, yet there are more than enough moments of insight to recommend" the novel. A Kirkus Reviews writer called it "too clever by half: a Chinese box of a novel fascinating in its intricacies but pretty hard to get a grip on whole." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly tired of the flashbacks and use of "a fashion photographers commands … to signpost the narrator's epiphanies," but acknowledged that the book "does have fun moments when campy banter tops the heroine's flat, whiny bathos." Writing for Booklist, George Needham concluded, "By the end, most readers will be both exhausted and exhilarated."
Palahniuk's fourth novel, Choke, firmly cemented his reputation as a skilled writer who continues to keep his readers uncomfortable. In this novel, the central character is Victor Mancini, a young man who supplements his paycheck in an unusual way: he fakes choking in a different restaurant every night, confident that someone will volunteer to save him and, upon hearing his hard-luck story, send him cash on a regular basis. Victor is a medical school dropout, works a menial job at a historical village, and is a sex addict who indulges himself mid-flight in airplane bathrooms. Flashbacks show that Victor's mother, now a senile woman in a nursing home, gave him a miserable childhood. However, he still wants to help her. A mysterious doctor at the nursing home reveals that his mother believes he was conceived by her contact with a holy relic, which would make him the son of Jesus.
In a review for the New York Times Janet Maslin was both frustrated and impressed by elements in Choke. She introduced the story line with the comment that "Palahniuk is hard to beat if you'd like a working definition of the adolescent male state of mind." And she named him among Irvine Welsh and J.G. Ballard as "writers equally devoted to bizarre circumstances and the bleakest of humor." Yet Maslin admired "the sheer, anarchic fierceness of imagination that fuels [the novel's] wildest individual vignettes," and dubbed Choke "an uneven but still raw and vital book, punctuated with outrageous, off-the-wall moments that work as often as not."
In the Oregonian John Foyston confessed that the novel contains several details he could not openly discuss in "a family newspaper." Foyston came to the conclusion that "With this, his fourth novel, Palahniuk's strengths and weaknesses are plain enough. His most endearing trait—the thing that keeps me reading—is that marvelous quicksilver voice of his. Choke also benefits from Palahniuk's taste for obscure and obsessive erudition, which shows up in the ongoing internal monologue of an AWOL med student." The reviewer was left wanting more plot and more agreeable characters, yet he felt that "the exuberance" of the author's "language makes it still worthwhile to brave these often chilly and dark waters."
Another Palahniuk project is a horror trilogy that begins with the novel Lullaby. In this bizarre tale, newspaper reporter Carl Streator is writing a story about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) when he discovers a macabre connection with a book of poetry. In each of the five cases of SIDS he investigates he finds the same edition of the book in which an ancient African tribal poem has been reprinted. The poem was originally intended as a way to decrease the tribes' population in desperate times when there was not enough food to go around. Now it has been carelessly reprinted in a book, and the dilemma the reporter faces is that he does not know how many copies of the book are extant and how to get rid of them before it is too late. Teaming up with a real estate agent, Helen Hoover Boyle, who also knows the "culling song," Streator sets out to destroy all known copies of the book. Two more strange characters join in this eerie quest, Mona, Helen's assistant, and her boyfriend, Oyster.
Maslin, writing in the New York Times, was again both fascinated and repelled by Palahniuk's "tireless pursuit of the outrageous" in Lullaby. Like Kurt Vonnegut, he "juggles nihilism and idealism with fluid, funny ease, and he repeats and rephrases word patterns until they take on an almost mystical aspect." Virginia Heffernan, reviewing Lullaby for the New York Times Book Review, was less impressed, dubbing the novel a "nauseating picaresque" with "less than zero sacred." A Kirkus Reviews contributor saw more to like in the novel, calling it the kind of "outrageous, darkly comic fun … you'd expect from Palahniuk." And Booklist reviewer John Green felt that what separates Lullaby from Palahniuk's earlier work "is its emotional depth, its ability to explore the unbearable pain of losing a child just as richly as it laments our consume-or-die worldview."
Palahniuk's sixth novel, Diary, is told in the form of a diary that Misty Marie Kleinman writes for her carpenter husband, Peter Wilmot, who lies in a coma following a suicide attempt. Misty is an artist who prefers the blandly pictorial to edgy modern art; she was attracted to Peter originally because of the picturesque island he took her to live on. However, she wound up working as a waitress to support her daughter and mother-in-law, while Peter's carpentry work became an outlet for his mental instability, as he started engineering hidden rooms in which he plastered obscenities. Misty has now become consumed with her painting, and her friends and acquaintances mysteriously want her to paint more and more; if she stops, she gets excruciating headaches. The force that drives her somehow seems to be controlled by members of her family, whose intentions are unclear.
Typically, reviews of Diary were mixed. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the author "captures the reader hook, line and sinker" from the first page, and then spins a "twisted tale [that is] one of his most memorable works to date." Booklist's John Green similarly found that the book's "fantastically grotesque premise propels the story," but also found fault with the writing, which "lacks the satirical precision" of Palahniuk's other works. In contrast, Book contributor James Sullivan praised Diary as a "deft meditation on great art and the toll it takes." David Wright, reviewing the novel in Library Journal, called Diary a "blend of paranoiac horror along the lines of Rosemary's Baby," while Flynn, in Entertainment Weekly, dubbed the work "pretty stunning, funky stuff."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, September-October, 2002, Michael Kaplan, interview with Palahniuk, p. 13; September-October, 2003, James Sullivan, review of Diary, p. 92.
Booklist, July, 1996, Thomas Gaughan, review of Fight Club, p. 1804; September 15, 1999, George Needham, review of Invisible Monsters, p. 233; August, 2002, John Green, review of Lullaby, p. 1887; July, 2003, John Green, review of Diary, p. 1846; July, 2003, Bill Ott, review of Fugitives and Refugees, p. 1858; December 15, 2003, Ted Hipple, review of Diary, p. 762.
Entertainment Weekly, May 25, 2001, Troy Patterson, "Hard to Swallow: In Choke, the Latest from the Author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk's Hip Nihilism Comes to Naught," p. 72; July 18, 2003, Noah Robischon, review of Fugitives and Refugees, p. 80; September 5, 2003, Gillian Flynn, review of Diary, p. 79; September 26, 2003, Karen Valby, "Chuck Palahniuk Does Not Attend Fight Club," p. 62; September 26, 2003, Noah Robischon, "Joining the Club," p. 67.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1998, review of Survivor, p. 1755; August 1, 1999, review of Invisible Monsters, p. 1160; June 15, 2002, review of Lullaby, p. 834; May 1, 2003, review of Fugitives and Refugees, pp. 663.
Kliatt, September, 2003, Jacqueline Edwards, review of Diary, pp. 54-55.
Library Journal, March 1, 2001, Heath Madom, review of Choke, p. 132; August, 2002, Andrea Kempf, review of Lullaby, p. 144; July, 2003, John McCormick, review of Fugitives and Refugees, p. 112; July, 2003, David Wright, review of Diary, p. 125.
Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1999, review of Fight Club, p. 1; October 6, 2002, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Lullaby, p. E1; August 10, 2003, Christopher Reynolds, review of Fugitives and Refugees, p. L9.
Newsweek, September 1, 2003, Andrew Phillips, interview with Palahniuk, p. 10.
New York Times, May 24, 2001, Janet Maslin, "An Immature Con Man with a Mom Problem"; September 12, 2002, Janet Maslin, review of Lullaby, p. E9; August 31, 2003, Taylor Antrim, review of Fugitives and Refugees, and Diary, p. 5.
New York Times Book Review, May 27, 2001, Jennifer Reese, review of Choke, p. 16; October 20, 2002, Virginia Heffernan, review of Lullaby, p. 17.
New York Times Magazine, September 29, 2002, John Glassie, "The Pugilist Novelist" (interview), p. 21.
Oregonian, March 10, 1999, Frank Bures, "Survivor Stews over Superficiality of Society"; May 13, 2001, John Foyston, review of Choke.
Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1996, review of Fight Club, p. 60; July 5, 1999, review of Invisible Monsters, p. 56; March 20, 2000, John F. Baker, "Fight Club Author to Broadway," p. 15; April 2, 2001, review of Choke, p. 37; July 1, 2002, review of Lullaby, pp. 46-47; July 8, 2002, John F. Baker, "No D-day Choke for Chuck," p. 12; September 2, 2002, interview with Palahniuk, p. 49; September 30, 2002, Daisy Maryles, "Not a Sleeper," p. 18; May 12, 2003, review of Fugitives and Refugees, pp. 51-52; July 7, 2003, review of Choke, pp. 26-27; July 7, 2003, review of Diary, pp. 50-51; September 8, 2003, Daisy Maryles, "Dear Diary," p. 18; December 1, 2003, review of Diary, p. 20.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 12, 1999, James Sullivan, "Model Misbehavior."
Time, September 23, 2002, Richard Lacayo, review of Lullaby, p. 76.
Village Voice, February 24-March 2, 1999, Lily Burana, "Cult Club"; October 13-19, 1999, Emily Jenkins, "Extreme Sport."
Washington Post Book World, May 27, 2001, review of Choke, p. 6; August 31, 2003, Marc Nesbitt, review of Diary, p. p.
Western Journal of Medicine, May, 2002, Shahin Chandrasoma, interview with Palahniuk, pp. 200-202.
Chuck Palahniuk Home Page, http://www.chuckpalahniuk.net/ (March 4, 2004).
Guardian Unlimited, http://www.film.guardian.co.uk/ (May 12, 2000), Stuart Jeffries, "Bruise Control."
Oregonian Online, http://www.oregonlive.com/ (December 12, 2003), Shawn Levy, review of Postcards from the Future; (December 19, 2003) "We Barely Saw Ye, Chuck."
Powells.com, http://www.powells.com/ (September 4, 2003), C.P. Farley, "Author Interviews: Chuck Palahniuk."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com (October 13, 1999), Sarah Tomlinson, "Is It Fistfighting, or Just Multitasking?"
Telegraph Online, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ (October 21, 2003), William Leith, "A Writer's Life: Chuck Palahniuk."
Widmyer, Dennis, Kevin Kolsch, and Josh Chaplinsky, Postcards from the Future: The Chuck Palahniuk Documentary (film), ChuckPalahniuk.net, 2003.