“Words are the first step we take to turn intentions into reality”, declares American author Chuck Palahniuk. “All our vows, – he explains, – and declarations and signatures: Words. And ceremonies where we speak words (pledges and promises) in front of our peers. Again, that’s how human beings develop their dreams into a physical reality”. It seems as if Palahniuk has an almost mystical belief in the power of words and stories. His 2002 novel Lullaby told the story of a poem that is in reality a ‘culling song’, possessing the power to kill when spoken. In 2004, on a book tour, Palahniuk read a new story, Guts (that now forms a part of his new novel Haunted), that was apparently so powerfully horrific that people fainted (67 to date).
books are the only form of mass media that address risky, potentially offensive topics.
Palahniuk is the author of cult novels like Fight Club, Choke, Invisible Monsters and Diary. Cult in the sense that the subject matter is far from mainstream. Not in the sense of popularity. Palahniuk is a regular in the bestseller lists. This, his detractors suggest, is because he writes the sort of books that people who don’t read books like to read. That part of his audience are not regular ‘book readers’ is certainly true. He has managed to connect with a generation reared on MTV in a way that few others have. In truth, many of his detractors focus on the audience profile because they object to the graphic nature of his work. Stories about disembowelment don’t belong in the literary canon it would seem (space must be left for more novels where writers ponder the lives of writers pondering life, à la McEwan). He’s thoughtful and unrepentant about the themes that run through his work: “Please consider – he writes – that books are the only form of mass media that address risky, potentially offensive topics. Consuming a book depends on the reader’s consent. That effort – compared to the passive nature of watching movies or listening to music – gives books a privacy and permission no other medium has. Plus, it cost so little to produce a book (again, the reader does all the work), that a book doesn’t have to return the huge profits that a television program or movie or album does”.
The extreme nature of his work is as much a structured effect to draw both the author and audience further into the story. “I always want to keep the story moving, – he explains. – This means a constant flow of plot points, occurring in short scenes. Over the length of a novel, this forces the plot beyond any moderate crisis. What might be the dramatic peak of another book will just be the first-act peak in my books. If I have a bold, upsetting idea, I’ll use it as soon as possible. Otherwise, I find my flow of ideas stops. No matter how appalling the scene, you can always top it eventually. Plus, – he concludes, – books have such a tiny share of the public attention. No one reads. With all these strikes against books, I think their advantage is the ability to address topics and depict scenes that no other medium can. If writers don’t go to these extremes, no one will.”
There is much more to Palahniuk though than just the shock factor of addressing issues and events that don’t normally crop up in literature. He is one of the leading exponents of ‘minimalism’, as practiced by writers such as Tom Spanbauer, and Amy Hempel (of whom Palahniuk said that after reading her story The Harvest “almost every other book you ever read will suck”). It’s a stripped back form where, not surprisingly, words take on an important weight. His chapters are short, and he practices what are called ‘burnt tongue’ moments, in his own words ”a way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés”. It’s a style that, it seems to me, dismisses reader-response theories such as those given by Stanley Fish, who famously as an experiment wrote a list of names on his students’ blackboard telling them it was a discovered poem; in turn they produced a meaning for the poem, suggesting that meaning is in the hands of the reader, not the writer. “I subscribe to the theory of Derrida, – Palahniuk argues, – that fiction is a sort of software that runs in the reader’s mind to produce an emotional result. This way, the story is a very calculated formula that must use every means possible to ‘land’ or occur to best effect. This includes complete control of the ‘pace’ or delivery of the material”. I’m too slow off the mark to ask whether in writing Guts fainting was included in the programme!