Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, Choke and Lullaby, is the literary world’s equivalent to Henry Rollins. Rollins’ spoken word and Palahniuk’s fiction are two sides of the same coin—both are by turns nihilistic, darkly humorous, hyper-alienated and brutal. As a result, Palahniuk, like Rollins, has a rabid, hard-core following of mainly disenfranchised young men who seem to be in the grip of some kind of feverish testosterone dominance.
Palahniuk himself, again like Rollins, is also his own best promotional tool: Muscular and handsome, with close-cropped hair, there is more than a whiff of rough trade about him. His persona is super-butch but with an underlying sexual ambiguity that calls to mind the soldiers of ancient Sparta.
In these days of TV talk show public relations it is almost a requirement that a writer have movie star-grade charisma, which Palahniuk indeed does. As a result, the writer rather than the work becomes the publisher’s biggest commodity. On the cover of Stranger than Fiction: True Stories, Palahniuk’s newest book, the typeface trumpeting the author’s last name is at least five times larger than any other on the book, including the title itself. In case the reader has missed the point, the first printed page inside has a single, black word, again writ large, on white: CHUCK. The following page is black, with a single, large white word: PALAHNIUK. In the parlance of corporate marketing, Palahniuk the guy—not to be confused with Palahniuk the oeuvre—has been branded.
As for the work itself, most reviewers and readers either love or loathe it, in no uncertain terms. Palahniuk’s most devoted followers call themselves “The Cult” and maintain a Palahniuk-sanctioned website (www.chuckpalahniuk.net) discussing all things Chuck in excruciating detail.
With a rabid fan base catapulting each of his books onto the bestseller list upon release, it is probably safe to say that Palahniuk makes a great deal of money for his publisher, Doubleday, and it is to the advantage of that corporate entity that the writer turn out as much product as possible: Stranger than Fiction, Palahniuk’s new book of collected essays and journalistic pieces, is his eighth book in nine years.
There are 23 essays in Stranger than Fiction—17 of which have already appeared in similar form in various magazines, according to the very small print up front. By titling this collection Stranger than Fiction, Palahniuk sets himself up with some very high stakes; the essays had damn well better portray some very strange people and/or events. And therein lies the problem with Stranger than Fiction: Palahniuk at his best can be an interesting writer, arch and mordantly funny, but Stranger than Fiction is not the writer at his best. Rather, this book feels like a slapped-together compilation of lesser work, rushed into print to take advantage of the buzz surrounding Palahniuk the Brand.
Stranger than Fiction is divided into three sections: People Together, Portraits, and Personal. The first essay, “Testy Festy,” is a smirky description of some obscene onstage antics at the Rock Creek Testicle Festival. In our hardcore Girls Gone Wild culture, is the non-spectacle of consenting adults getting drunk and acting stupid onstage particularly strange or shocking, or is it just tired?
In “Where Meat Comes From,” another piece in the People Together section, Palahniuk visits the world of amateur wrestlers. In this world, men train their hearts out despite being way too old or simply not talented enough to have any serious shot at a wrestling career. They beat themselves up to cultivate a cauliflower ear as a badge of honor. These guys are sad sacks, and “Meat” reads like Geek Tourism: The reader observes the subjects from an uninvolved distance and then moves on to the next destination.
Portraits is a series of unexceptionally written celebrity profiles. Juliette Lewis reads a list of questions posed to an old lover, and the reader has a hard time discerning whether Palahniuk is letting her hang herself by allowing her to prattle on, or if he’s too entranced to be capable of cutting the piece down. Marilyn Manson, who comes off like a smart, observant and sorta normal guy, shares a tarot card reading with Chuck. And so on.
The world Palahniuk draws in Stranger than Fiction is nothing new, nor is it observed particularly acutely. The bombast that sometimes serves Palahniuk’s fiction seems simply irritating here, all the more so because the ground is so trampled already. This is the same world populated by such everyday, non-literary, low-brow characters as the poor schnooks on Average Joe who are convinced the hot girl has real feelings for them, or any trashy Jerry Springer guest busted sleeping with a close relative, or any arrestee ever chased down and caught in Cops.
The most interesting pieces in this book are the ones that chart the writer’s life—inner and outer—during his journey from diesel mechanic to famous writer (“Almost California” and “Consolation Prizes”) against the background of his own dark family history. Palahniuk’s grandfather shot and killed his grandmother and then committed suicide; his father, who, as a toddler, narrowly escaped being murdered in the same incident, was shot to death 56 years later by the jealous husband of a woman he was dating. It is in these pieces that Palahniuk drops the snarky, patronizing tone and the macho posturing from his writing. His defenses soften and the reader feels that something worth reading is being offered up—but there’s not nearly enough of it to sustain this slight offering of a book.