There’s a fascinating documentary, Postcards from the Future, filmed at a conference, instigated by fans and the honours programme at Edinboro University Pennsylvania, to discuss the work of Palahniuk. (It included papers like Freud and Fight Club, and Salvation through Disbelief: The Cult as a Social Phenomenon in Palahniuk’s Novels.) Palahniuk attended and participated at the conference. During one of the workshops he proposed that storytelling, in itself, is and could be a force for social change, far more powerful than, for example, street protests. “My conviction comes from just watching how humans work. Now, coming through forty years of protest and rebellion, the only real visions being presented are by advertising: Buy this. Live this way. Look like the model… It’s time people stopped protesting – and thereby giving more power to their enemy, by reinforcing the enemy with opposition – and humans began to offer their own visions for a better way to live. Not just products, but new plans or blueprints by which to live. And those models, again, will probably start with words in the form of rules, goals, philosophies, statements, observations.”
Watching how humans work forms part of the idea behind Haunted, a book where writers are cramped together to suffer, and believe that their suffering can itself in turn be converted to fame. Critics have been quick to label it a satirical punch at the ‘reality-TV’ culture of recent years. “I never intended Haunted to parody reality television, – Palahniuk counters. – The last such show I saw was An American Family in the 1970s. I haven’t owned a television since 1990. Haunted is more about the way people tend to create their identity out of their external circumstances – while refusing to generate themselves from their own will and intentions. People seem happier to gripe about their suffering than to create a world without that suffering. People seem to be in love with drama and conflict – but refuse to admit that. We love it when shit happens, or more accurately… when we make shit happen. And then we love to complain about it. And then we want to get paid for complaining. Everyone is a critic, but fewer people bother to create anything. We can say what’s wrong, but no one bothers to fix it.”
Coming through forty years of protest and rebellion, the only real visions being presented are by advertising: Buy this. Live this way. Look like the model…
In Diary, the female narrator, a failed painter, writes to her husband, who lies in a coma. That, obviously, is a simplistic way to put it – the husband for example has attempted suicide, leaving behind numerous problems, while his wife contemplates the life she could have had without him. There is an argument to say that Diary is autobiographical, in the sense that it describes the essence of the artist and the pains that torment creative people. Is it true that art, be it literature, painting, or music, is born off suffering? Can happy people be artistic? “The way I write, I have to be exploring and exhausting a personal issue, hidden inside the story, – Palahniuk responds, frankly. – Since I started, with no promise of money or attention, I needed some reward for the effort of writing. I had to have fun. And to process and resolve some problem. That’s still how I work. So, I begin each book from a problem, so
me personal issue that I can’t resolve and I can’t tolerate. An illness or injury or failed relationship or disappointment or death. By masking it with metaphor, I can research and write and be around people, but always be exploring and exhausting my emotional reaction to this upset. Happy people don’t need this kind of therapy. On a basic physical level, illness or injury or emotional breakdown sits you in a chair long enough to create something. Being incapacitated gives you permission to learn the skill you need to execute your ideas. Happy healthy folks (or folks on Zoloft) are too busy, running around, laughing, to bother with learning how to paint.”
His work may be dark, but he dares to be creative, and to aim high. With Guts for example, the faint-provoking story, he reveals that his“goal was to write a kind-of ‘landmark’ horror story, like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. When Jackson’s classic story first came out in The New Yorker in the 1950s, hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine. So, yes, the first reaction to horror is shock. Years later, people can see the metaphors. With Guts, people laugh at first. Then, when they see where the story is headed, they squirm in dread. Then – sometimes – they faint. Ultimately, the story gives them permission to explore and express their own most-secret horror stories. Now, after each reading event, I’ll find a dozen people eager to tell me stories a lot darker and most upsetting than Guts“.
Guts combines three actual stories that Palahniuk had heard (leading him for years to pray, he says, before boarding planes, “Please God, do not crash this plane because I’m the only one of Your children who knows all three of these great stories…” ). Masturbation, in a variety of forms, and physical mutilation are at the core of the story. It is disgusting (without being prudish – read it), certainly, though this reader didn’t faint. And rather than horror at the end, I was left with a curious sense of sadness and empathy. Empathy for a character who had done something that I would never wish to do. “According to the letters I get, – Chuck responds, confirming that I’m not alone, – many people find the story to be the funniest and saddest story they’ve ever heard. The end is impossibly heart-breaking, as the father calls his son ‘the family dog.’ It’s the same sadness that Jackson achieves when the ‘Lottery’ children help stone their mother to death.”
This year Stephen King caused a rumpus in the American world of letters by a) being awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, from the American National Book Foundation, and b) suggesting that there is a certain elitism at work when critics divide work between popular and literary fiction –(he questioned: “Do you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?”). Palahniuk’s response to the controversy is as good a place to finish as any. It again reiterates the fact that stories, to this American author, are far more than just blood and guts: “Far be it from me to judge anyone else as ‘literature’. Most ‘literature’ bores the piss out of me. But give me good ‘storytelling’, and I’m a happy clam. King is a good storyteller, and his success proves that. Consider that stories serve different purposes. 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. And working on a story – I want to be a largely different person by the time I write “the end”. What you expect from a story is probably what you expect from life.”