Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, Haunted, is filled with blood and guts (to the extent that one of the twenty-three short stories that form part of this “novel of stories” is entitled Guts), but precious little of the supernatural. Palahniuk is interested in horror, and the horrific, but not ghosts, vampires or goblins. The ghosts that float through the various stories are eternal moments of shame and humiliation that haunt individual characters. For generations reared on slasher movies and formula horror, Palahniuk’s intelligent writing will reawaken a too often dulled sense of shock. While the hype surrounding Guts may be overblown (over 70 people have fainted at events where the author has read the story aloud), virtually every story in this collection manages to twist and turn, leading the reader to the unexpected.
Palahniuk is, above all, a writer who works with form, and Haunted is perhaps his most ambitious work to date in this sense. It is a collection of twenty-three stories, wrapped up in a conceit, that of a group of writers locked away in a writer’s retreat that descends into a cross between Big Brother and Lord of the Flies. Each writer is obsessed both with being the sole survivor of an extraordinary ‘reality’, while at the same time writing the best story. For ‘best’ one could substitute ‘most shocking’. We’re reminded, by the author, of the Villa Diodati, the lakeside residence where Byron and a group of elite guests like Mary Shelley recounted stories to amuse themselves. There are allusions to other story collections such as The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron.
So, how is one to take this book? As a novel? As a collection of short stories? As a classic fix-up novel, where the short stories are only superficially related to the conceit of the book? The answer is probably all of the above. Certainly the stories work, for the most part, independently of each other and the narrative device holding the novel together. At the same time, each story is told by a specific character, who plays a role in the narrative device, thus suggesting a more complicated link than a simple plot device. This is further complicated by the fact that all the narrators are labelled with titles rather than specific names – Saint Gut-Free, the Duke of Vandals, Mother Nature, and the Earl of Slander to name but a few.
What is most intriguing about the book is precisely the relationship between the narratorial voice and the stories being told. Not content with the traditional unreliable narrator, Palahniuk has given us 19/20 different story tellers, all competing vainly, and homicidally with each other. None can be trusted, and their stories less. The wrap story is narrated, constantly using ‘we’, but half-way through the novel it dawned on this slow reader – who is the narrator? A first reading of the novel doesn’t answer the question.
Palahniuk, in interview with Three Monkeys Online, spoke about the influence writing his travel guide on Portland, Fugitives and Refugees, had on the writing of Haunted: “I loved writing that little travel book, because it combined interviews with stories with essays with recipes with definitions with lists, etc. All those textures keep the reader’s eye interested. The page never looks boring or threatening. And if the reader doesn’t care for one type of information, another type arrives quick enough”. Palahniuk is an author with an unfashionable concern for engaging his readers. So, on first reading one may be inclined to speed up through the surreal and confusing wrap, with its myriad of characters and shifting alliances. One may breeze through, getting to the meat of the short stories that shock and delight with their inventiveness and perverse moral instructions. And indeed the stories on display are some of Palahniuk’s finest and most twisted (during one particularly daring and brilliant story, Punch Drunk, one realises that Palahniuk is incapable of telling a ‘simple’ story).
Haughty critics will mumble about attention deficits and pandering to the sensationalist instincts of an audience that doesn’t read books (a line that is routinely trotted out about Palaniuk seemingly because he sells more books than critics deem appropriate). Engagement though is only half the intent. At the end of Haunted enough doubts and questions have been created in the reader’s mind, to will them to return and re-read the book. Haunted can’t simply be read, it must be re-read.
Whether all the structural devices are successful is debatable. Each narrator’s story is introduced by a poem, for example. But, as is the danger with a structural device, sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t. The aforementioned titles given to the narrators suffer the same fate. Some are brilliantly evocative, some deliberately anonymous, but others smack of an exhausted imagination having to follow a blueprint (Miss America, for example). For a writer who has so brilliantly espoused minimalism, there are elements within this book that seem to have been dictated more by structural necessity than their relevance to the story.
These, though, are minor gripes. “Consider that stories serve different purposes,” Palahniuk told Three Monkeys Online. “Some people want comfort. Some want confrontation. Some want a story to be exciting, but some want a sedative. Me, I want to be shocked and delighted, and maybe a bit traumatized. When I read, when I take that much time and effort, I want to be changed – transformed – by the story”.
Literary accolades have been surprisingly sparse in Palahniuk’s career, thus far. Haunted, with its bucketloads of blood, and uncomfortable sexual scenarios (in all senses), is unlikely to change this. It’s unfortunate, and says more about the keepers of the literary canon than the merits of the book, for Haunted is a fine literary work. Flawed perhaps, but daringly imaginative, experimental, and a gripping read. And rest assured, it will sell and sell.
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