Arifa Akbar: The novelist as protean showman - from Dickens to Chuck Palahniuk

The Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Earlier this week, I found myself sitting in the basement bar of Madame Jojo's, a sticky-floored cabaret club nestling in what seemed like the only remaining ungentrified corner of Soho.

On stage, a man appeared from behind a twinkling, rhinestone-studded curtain, wearing tight stripey trousers, beer in hand. He might have been a member of the "rockeoke" band that sometimes plays there. Except that he was Chuck Palahniuk, the American author of Fight Club and 12 other novels, come to tell his signature-mark explicit stories that have been known, in past X-rated performances, to have ambulances waiting outside for the fainters and the weak-bellied vomitters.

So there I was, notebook in hand, among a throng of trendy young things, all responding volubly to the "oldie but goodie" about the guy with HIV whose pug dog licks his sperm-smeared tissues ("does he have HIV, too?"), and the story about the seven-year-olds who discover how to have orgasms from a heating pad, and the really eye-watering one about a disembowelling in a swimming pool during a sex act, when suddenly, Palahniuk dropped a clanger.

His next book – Beautiful You – will be about sex. Nothing new there, except that after years of writing sex explicitly, he will now refer to the act in euphemism for the entire novel. Think of it as Marquis de Sade sex, as told by Barbara Cartland (his line, not mine). I looked around the room but saw no fainters.

Still, it is a serious departure for a novelist who has built his style – and reputation – on telling stories explicitly (so much so that by his admission, Barnes & Noble, and various other outlets, steer clear of his live events). Then again, how do you continue to write about sex, and make waves, once you have written in the most explicit terms? Maybe the more radical act in an age when erotic fiction has gone mainstream, and where Hollywood starlets (or Scarletts) are saying that porn can be beneficial, is to write about it in round-about ways.

There has been unending debate about how to write sex – the Bad Sex Awards are focusing our minds on it yet again. That's not the talking-point here. The gamble Palahniuk is taking seems much more literary – a daringly counter-intuitive move to not give readers what he is known to give, and what they are all lapping up at Jojo's. It could be seen as reneging on an unwritten agreement that, while an author can chop and change genres to his or her heart's content, the voice in which these stories are told is inviolable. An older generation of American writers seemed to have established that rule – the likes of Philip Roth and John Updike and Norman Mailer – the primacy of their distinct voices being everything.

Now, we have the Dave Eggers generation which throws the narrative egoism of the last into relief. Eggers's sentences veer from expansive to minimalist, from novel to novel. Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries, has been likened to TV serials for its episodic nature. It is as if these writers seek, rather bravely, to make narrative mediums more fluid, and rather than fixating on the inviolable novelistic voice, they adopt the languages and syntaxes of other mediums. Palahniuk is also, by the way, writing a sequel to Fight Club as a graphic novel. "It is a joy to re-learn storytelling in these ways," he says.

Despite their obvious differences, the sight of Palahniuk telling his stories on stage made me think of Charles Dickens, only because I had just seen Ralph Fiennes's film, The Invisible Woman (released on 7 February), about Dickens's long-standing mistress. What struck me most though was the portrait of Dickens as performer. He gave spellbinding, sell-out shows which seemed like storytelling events in their own right, quite separate from his novels.

The live performance seemed to become another way of telling a story and not just a PR off-shoot, complete with the desire for that instant, visceral response of audience gasps, laughter and for Palahniuk, the odd fainting fit. We expect our favourite authors to talk in a certain language, and deliver in a certain medium, and so it is daring when they defy expectation and do something different. Palahniuk's euphemistic sex story is a refreshing idea. Maybe it will even get him a gig at Barnes & Noble.

A manuscript too hot to handle electronically

The manuscript for Glenn Greenwald's upcoming book, No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, The NSA, And The US Surveillance State, is so top secret that his publisher, Penguin, will not be emailing it, even to his closest circles, but will only be passing it on by hand. So far, there has been one "handover" of the paper manuscript at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and there will be another in December. A source said: "I suppose human couriers sounds a bit dramatic, but it's true!" Penguin could always hire a Securicor van, complete with guard-and-manuscript in handcuffs.

The rise of 'm': A letter of some curious distinction

What is it about the initial M? Joanne Harris will be Joanne M Harris when she brings out her new fantasy novel, The Gospel of Loki, early next year. The biographer, Miranda Carter, meanwhile, will re-emerge as MJ Carter at around the same time for the publication of her first historical novel, The Strangler Vine. "It creates an easy division between the two genres," explains Harris of her new initial. True, but just for the record, the late Iain (M) Banks was there first. l