A Very Personal Chuck Palahniuk Retrospective
This is a retrospective, a going-through of Chuck Palahniuk’s work. Because his new book comes out this week.
I’m not going to talk plots or reviews so much as I'll tell some personal stories.
If you’re looking for a plot summary, just buy the damn books and read them already. If you're looking for reviews, there's lots out there for you.
If you're looking to hear how an author has shaped a person's life, read on.
If you read Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant, then I don’t have to explain where I got the idea to glue a ceramic coffee mug on top of my car, just above the driver’s side door. And even if you didn’t read the book, I don’t have to explain to you what’s funny about a car with a coffee mug stuck on the roof.
The only part I have to explain is the part that I can’t explain.
I’m at a stoplight, mug glued to the roof, and the guy in the car behind me opens his door and gets out, starts walking towards my car. He’s definitely going to grab the mug off the roof, definitely going to find out it’s glued on. And the part that I can't explain, the guy walking towards my car, it’s 100%, no doubt my elementary school gym teacher. I haven't seen him since fifth grade, but there he is, instantly recognizable, probably closer than he appears in the side mirror.
My gym teacher gets pretty close to my back bumper, and I let off the brake and coast up into the crosswalk, nose into the intersection.
There are two last things in the world I want right now. The last thing I want in the world is to have this guy figure out it’s a fake, and the other, also last thing, I don’t want to talk to my elementary school gym teacher again.
The light changes, I stand on the gas, and my gym teacher cups his hands around his mouth and yells something.
My drive to work is shorter than a Mars Volta song. Not shorter than the radio edit, but shorter than the ones where they’re really jerking off for a while. And in that time, 4 different people try to “rescue” me. Got out of their cars, honked, yelled and made hand motions next to me at lights. I smiled and thumbs-upped them, and I couldn’t wait to drive off.
I tore the mug off my car that same night. The mug pulled a ring of paint off with it, which wasn’t a big deal because the car was a total shit box.
I wasn't the idiot who read a book and started a fight club or burned my hand with lye (a friend I had did that. It was really stupid). But I did try out a stupid prank from a Chuck book.
It was my first Chuck experience. Of course.
Me and a buddy snuck into the movie. I wasn’t quite old enough to get into it yet, which is the perfect age to see most movies.
I remember two things.
I remember the ending. The very, very last moments. The movie stops, the music kicks, and I’m thinking, “What the fuck just happened?”
The second thing, I remember seeing in the opening credits that it was based on a book. But by the movie's end, all I could remember from the name was “Chuck Pa...gjbraejkr.”
I read Fight Club and then Survivor while I worked at a phone center. Not an evil one. We picked up items to benefit folks with Cerebral Palsy. We sat in front of computers that brought up green text over black screens, and an autodialer that connected us to the people in different local-ish zip codes. 80631, 80620, it didn’t matter, the spiel was the same every time. After working there maybe a week, I could say it without reading it off the screen. A month and I could do crosswords while I said, “Hi, this is Peter from Cerebral Palsy, we’ll be in the area on…” A year in, I could spit it all out and read books at the same time.
The only thing that tripped me up was every few days someone on the other end of the phone asked what Cerebral Palsy was. I had no fucking idea.
In college I injured a hip. If you’ve ever hurt your hip, you know it’s a tough thing to ice. The only way that worked for me was to buy a couple bags of ice on the way home from work, dump them in the tub, fill the tub with cold water, and get in.
The hardest part of an ice bath is the part where you get in. If you can get in, sit down all the way, you can make it. If you can commit to that much, you’ll make it.
To get me in the ice, I brought home Choke on CD audiobook. And the only time I let myself listen was in the ice bath.
Chuck Palahniuk read the book himself. I loved hearing the book how it went in his head. I learned some shit. And I healed.
The thing I really loved about this book, it was the one that felt like a book he wanted to write. That he was like, “Fuck it. I know people want another Fight Club. But I want a book about old-school Hollywood gossip.” I always like work where the creator is doing something they enjoy. I respect that on a deep, deep level.
This is the only book of broken, made-up English that I’ve ever finished. I could never get into Trainspotting. Everything Is Illuminated? Gag me.
Everything Is Illuminated was a cheat, this guy who speaks in a broken, odd English, but the English he uses is MORE complex and complicated than the average speaker. He’s invented a new English that seems impossible without first understanding the nuanced rules of “proper” English. It only works if you don’t think about it much. It’s a little bit adorable in a way I don’t appreciate.
Good god with the reception of this book. This is satire on a level of not only plot, but the actual syntax and style is satire too. Argue with me all day. Argue in the comments, I’ll respond to you.
I went to a reading when Chuck toured for Beautiful You. The reading went down in a big church. We sat in honest-to-God wooden pews, Bibles in the slots and everything.
We all got inflatable beach balls with an insert for a glow stick. And between stories, the lights went out, and the balls were tossed in the air and bounced around. All these people were laughing and shouting.
I’ve been to dozens of readings in my lifetime, and I’ve never had more fun than at one of Chuck’s. Even if you’re not a fan, go to one. It’s fun. It’s an event. It’s like a demolition derby. You don’t have to be a fan of motorsports to enjoy watching cars smash into each other. Only problem is, you're spoiled for just about any other reading. You'll watch some guy read out loud at a podium and be wondering when all the fun starts.
“Guts” came out in Playboy before it came out in Haunted. I tried to convince my girlfriend to buy it from Borders for me. I was embarrassed. Some because it was a Playboy, but way more because the cover models were female wrestlers. It was a weird stage in life where being cool and mature was important and didn’t accommodate for nude lady wrestlers.
I can thank Chuck for motivating my first pornography purchase. And, honest to god, cliche as it is, I bought that Playboy for the articles.
Chuck really does a great job with non-fiction. Lots of his fiction applies a non-fiction form, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. The surprise, really, is that he doesn’t do it more often.
I did find this article he did in 2010, another great dip into non-fiction. This is KonMari, but 5 years earlier and suited to those of us who don't really feel that sweaters spark joy.
You know how you date someone and a song or an album gets tied to the relationship? And it’s not really yours anymore? That’s kind of what happened with Diary. Except I barely knew the girl and she wasn’t my girlfriend.
I had this buddy. And he had this girlfriend. She was...I’ll say wacky. That makes it sound fun.
There were things about her that were fun. She liked to go on short trips for no particular reason. She would ring up stuff at her big box hobby store job super cheap for you if you were nice.
She lived in Texas. So my friend, he asked me if I wanted to road trip with him out to Texas to see her.
“When?” I said.
We did. I drove stick for the first time since Driver’s Ed, from just south of Denver to Amarillo, through the night. My friend slept the whole time.
I don’t remember much of the trip. I remember figuring out, about 10 miles from the house, that my friend didn’t tell his girlfriend we were coming. He wanted to surprise her. I remember thinking my friend was an idiot. I remember a pretty good chicken fried steak. I remember it turned out the girlfriend was seeing someone else, a real Texas boy who took us all to some kind of outdoor hoedown.
I remember that Diary was this girlfriend’s favorite book. And somehow that part sticks in my mind.
It’s hard to explain, but the way a smell becomes the memory trigger of a person, or a certain food, that book always reminds me of her just a little bit.
I'm still freaked the fuck out about riding with the car window part way down. It's all or nothing for me. That's it.
Some books change the way you think, some change the way you live, and some give you a horrific image that you're reminded of every spring.
Powell’s in Portland was everything I wanted from a bookstore. Tons of shit, a whole big section of zines, and a big, honking section of indie presses, bizarro, just generally weird shit.
I was an English major in college. I read all the stuff you’re supposed to read and didn’t have fun with much of it. At Powell’s I picked up The Menstruating Mall. I’d never read anything like it before. I didn’t know books could be like this. This...fun.
The section is shrunk down in Powell’s now. The zines mostly gone, relegated to a spinner rack thingie. It’s a sad state of affairs. I won’t say that it’s because the store is cleaned up now and that they have no room for this stuff. I won’t say that because I still love that store.
Damned brought back a lot of those bizarro feelings. It wasn’t fully a bizarro book, but it flirted with bizarro. Maybe some over the clothes groping with bizarro.
It made me think the spirit of the bizarre was still on those shelves. That it had infected its way into books that weren’t relegated to that one spot. I just had to work harder to find them.
I read Doomed on vacation in Portland. During that vacation, I may have visited the Portland Memorial Mausoleum, the real-life place that inspired scenes in Survivor.
I say “may have” because it’s privately owned now, so you can’t just waltz in. But IF I visited it, I WOULD HAVE done it like this:
I looked up someone who could be related to me using Find a Grave, finding someone who came from my part of the country, someone who could’ve been a relative. I memorized a story, how I was in the area and my mother asked me to visit the grave. All that work was for nothing, though. All the story I needed was a nice pair of slacks and some flowers I picked up a stop early on the bus. Nobody even asked. I signed a paper and the woman buzzed me in, not so much as a question.
It’s pretty incredible. If you like graveyards, or maybe I should say if you think graveyards are worth visiting, this place is graveyard times a billion. The carpets are deep and thick. The colors are wild. Pink and avocado. Each floor has its own feel.
I would never encourage anyone to visit such a place under false pretenses. That would be dishonest. I’ll just remind people that if they were up for a little dishonesty, and if they wanted to make a totally worthwhile literary pilgrimage, they can probably do it, but they should do it in a way that doesn't ruin it for everyone. Treat it like a national park. Be prepared and deeply respectful. Don't even take a dump there unless you plan to pack it out in a bag.
I read "Phoenix" on my phone in some chain restaurant outside an Ikea.
I was buying a couch. An upgrade from the huge sectional that I got from my old high school principal (long story, lots of coincidence, let’s not worry about that).
I picked out the couch with my new girlfriend. The one I’m dating still. It was our first date. It wasn’t a glamorous date, couch shopping at Ikea, but it was the first time we went out in the world together and did a thing.
We looked at couches, and we looked at other things. Including a fake fur, a small rug we joked about getting for my office at work. To make it more “home-y.”
My girlfriend got the little rug for me to take to work. But it backfired. I never took it to work. Instead, I draped it across the back of the couch. We moved in together, and as much as my girlfriend hated the rug, it became her cat’s favorite thing in the world.
Our cat died this year.
The thing about a cat is, when they’re gone, they’re gone. It feels like they were never there. Like maybe cats don’t have such a big impact on the world. We decided to fix that. Just a little.
The cat left litter everywhere. In the couch from Ikea, in her white blanket, everywhere. She couldn’t track litter around anymore. But we picked up the slack.
We filled out coat pockets with kitty litter, and we rode the train to Ikea. We looked for my couch, my bed, and the huge yellow cage of white furry rugs. All the things she loved, and we spread a little kitty litter. In the cracks in the couch, under the bed just like the one from home, the one she hid under when our old neighbors played norteño music so loud it vibrated the walls. All the things she loved. In the fake Ikea sinks too. She loved sinks.
The litter was clean. Don’t worry. And if you bought something from Ikea in Portland and found a small white pebble in it, I’m not sorry, but that’s what it was.
This one doesn’t sound like it has much to do with Chuck, but it does. He’s been around, one way or another, most of my adult life. Lots of the milestones. Even the ones that you don’t know are milestones at the time, picking up an Ikea couch you picked out with your future girlfriend, who would buy a white fur rug, which your future cat would love.
Oh, and our cat’s name was Sicily.
I started dumpster diving in elementary school. A friend of mine lived in an apartment, and we’d climb the bins, jump inside and look around for treasure. Treasure was usually porno magazines, but sometimes it was a weird gaming console or one of those crystal balls with the purple lightning inside, or a giant stuffed gorilla from a carnival, which I pulled out of the dumpster, and it was only once I got him out that I figured out he was soaked with trash sludge water.
The dumpster habit doesn’t break easy. The college near my house, they rolled up big ass dumpsters at the end of the school year. Rich kids dumped a whole dorm room worth of shit in there, bought new the next year. Lamps, a desk, most of my furniture came from there. And probably the worst thing I ever had to admit came from the bottom of a dumpster, a George Foreman grill. I cleaned it, but still.
The bookshelf in my first apartment was a dumpster treasure too. I saw it when I was out jogging, and I came back with a friend who helped me cram it into my Grand Am. We had to roll down the window, lay it diagonally across the inside, and then I had to lay on top of the shelf, squeezed between its metal bars and the inside roof of the car. My friend drove, the seat scooted so far up his foot caught under the brake pedal.
I had that shelf for years, until I classed up my apartment with a shelf that was very chic, combining organic and industrial aesthetics (bricks and boards, if we’re being exact).
One of my favorites on the shelf, Snuff, the slim fleshy book with the tour bookmark from a Chuck reading, one with a string of blue anal beads dangling off it. That would look out of place on a lot of bookshelves, but on a 4-tier, multicolor shelf meant to sell different disgusting flavors of Pucker, it fit right in.
After I got my wisdom teeth out, a buddy picked me up, drove me to Walgreens to get my pills. While we waited in the car, I looked through the bag of shit they gave me at the oral surgeon’s office. Gauze, papers, and a plastic condiment cup with my two wisdom teeth inside.
I held them up to look at them. They were gnarly. Deep, twisty roots, dark yellow. They didn’t look like human teeth. I didn’t remember asking for them, but I was glad to have them.
I kept them around for awhile. Didn’t really know what to do with them, but also didn’t want to get rid of them.
I’d swallowed almost all of my baby teeth. The ones I gave to the tooth fairy, my mom trashed them. If my life went mostly good, these would be the only teeth I grew and held outside my mouth.
In Fugitives and Refugees, Chuck Palahniuk takes his tonsils, floating in a jar, and he makes a wish that he’ll be a writer, and he throws the jar off his back porch, into the trees. It seems like a very crazy and romantic thing to do, but I can’t argue with the results.
I took my teeth out with me in a blizzard, ran to the top of this big hill near my apartment. I made the same wish, and I threw my teeth as far as I could. They were lost in the snow.
As far as the effectiveness of teeth versus tonsils, we’ll have to wait and see.
I heard an interview with Chuck where he talked about adult coloring books saving the publishing industry for a time. Because they are good gifts, and because there’s no secondary or electronic market. You’ll notice Bait and Legacy aren’t on the Kindle store.
He also talked about liking the idea of no two copies ending up the same. That once they were filled in, each copy of the book was totally different.
I wasn’t sure if I would ever color mine in. Until I heard that interview and started in, colored a single red crab on the inside cover.
While we walked, I told a friend about a story I was working on. After I went to a comic convention and saw a Giant-Size X-Men #1, I thought it would be a great idea to get one, then go around and destroy as many other copies as I could, making mine more valuable. I didn't have the guts to do it for real, but I thought it would make a good short story.
My friend said, "So the story is about this person going on a road trip to destroy copies of a comic book?"
And I said, "Yeah!"
And he said, "So it's Lullaby?"
And I said, "...Shit!"
I have some obsessive qualities. Probably not a surprise if you've gotten this far in the article. I used to have problems. Rituals, numbers, all that crap. Not so much anymore.
Now and then something comes up that puts me back in that life.
Invisible Monsters Remix, it's closer to Chuck's original vision for Invisible Monsters. Things are out of order. Imagine almost a Choose Your Own Adventure. About a lady with half a face.
I flipped through it in Barnes and Noble, and I knew the only way I could read this book was to go through, marking off each section as I went. That would be the only way to know I'd read everything, that I'd really completed the book. I might even have to map it out, figuring any branching paths to see where material was left behind.
Plan concocted, I put it back on the shelf. It was the right choice. I'm sure most recovering drunks can step into a bar eventually and be alright. But it wasn't my time just yet.
There's something appealing to the nerd superfan of imagining a work like this as a collaboration with the man himself. Yes, I know that it's not like I'm giving him editorial notes. Yes, I know it's not like he'll ever know. Yes, I know it's a little pathetic. But that's what fandom is about. Being a little pathetic in the face of something you enjoy.
I can think of 4 times creators wrote themselves into comics that I’ve read.
John Byrne wrote himself into "The Trial of Galactus." This one didn’t work because everyone in the comics is like, “Oh, hey! My good buddy John!” It was a little self-aggrandizing.
Grant Morrison wrote himself into Animal Man. He told a little story about his cat dying. He said he’d been sad, but also excited about the prospect of using the story in Animal Man somehow. Which ultimately didn’t sit right with Morrison. He writes himself into the comic to sort of explain all this, and it kind of works.
Chip Zdarsky did it in his recent Howard the Duck run. But only sort of, and he makes himself a big fool. Plus, this results in two versions of Biggs The Cat (Biggs Prime and Biggs, pictured left to right), so it’s a home run as far as I’m concerned.
Chuck Palahniuk did it in Fight Club 2. And I think it works.
There are things about the writer writing himself into comics I don’t love. But in some ways, it’s a great version of stepping up and stepping out, speaking a truth that’s a little too real for narrative fiction. People who interview Chuck always ask him questions about Fight Club. Which always reveal they haven't read Fight Club 2.
Adjustment Day comes out tomorrow. I’ll buy a copy tomorrow. Because that’s what you do. If you love a director or an author or a musician, you buy their stuff the day it comes out.
It’s hard to know what I’ll say about this book in the future. Right now I’m long-distance-ing it with my girlfriend. I’m about to start my 14th year at the same job. I just finished a 3-month workshop with Chuck and Lidia Yuknavitch, and to do that I flew back and forth from Denver to Portland every week.
I read the first page of Adjustment Day. A galley someone got their hands on and brought to class. I couldn't tell you much about it from that one page, but I'm looking forward to it. Are you surprised?
And I'm looking forward to another couple decades of stories. The ones that happen inside the pages and out.
Got any stories? Most of us have at least one.
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