Chuck Palahniuk: 'I shy away from non-consensual violence'
Chuck Palahniuk is one of America's most contentious cutting-edge writers. He talks to Arifa Akbar about the inspiration for 'Fight Club', his father's murder and his latest 'remixed' novel.
Chuck Palahniuk's stories make people faint. Often in great numbers. Ambulances have been known to wait outside the venues at which he gives his readings and foyers have been filled with stretchers carrying victims of his gore-filled prose. By now, his fans know what kind of horror to expect when they turn up for his reading-cum-performances. Palahniuk has even hurled fake severed limbs and blow-up dolls at his wilting audience and kept an assiduous count of his "fainters".
Forty people originally keeled over in 2003 when he read "Guts", a short story about masturbation-gone-wrong that involved a swimming-pool pump and the accidental expulsion of internal body parts. It subsequently led to swathes of audience members fainting as he toured across America. Palahniuk later wrote that the story had caused 73 faintings, though Playboy magazine put the number nearer the 200 mark.
"It has happened in Brighton," he exclaims when I suggest that the fainting fits are more an America phenomenon than a British one. Palahniuk is quiet-voiced and courteous, speaking in the same kind of crisp, minimal sentences that he is known to write, and he becomes particularly animated around this subject. "It was the literature festival at the Corn Exchange. Eighteen people fainted and there was an ambulance outside. My publisher was dumbfounded. The lobby of this huge auditorium was filled with stretchers."
Yet these visceral responses are built out of complicity between Palahniuk and his fans. That same complicity led some men to enact Fight Club – a story about a group of ordinary men who meet up to inflict recreational violence on each other – by setting up real-life fight clubs. Palahniuk says a physical response is just what he is after with his fiction, though he wants to hold the reader in a double-bind, and so have them wavering between repulsion and release, and between horror and humour. "What I'm always trying to do with every book is to recreate the effect of the stories we heard as children in front of camp-fires and fire-places – the ghost stories that engaged us.
"There is a lot of laughter in most of my stories that make people faint," he explains. "Making them laugh is a way of breaking the tension. You are confronting people to the point where they are about to remove themselves but then you make them laugh and they remain, and then you confront them again... You keep rewarding and punishing them."
Since its publication in 1996, Palahniuk's debut novel, Fight Club, has become his most name-checked book, partly because of the success of David Fincher's film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. But before Fight Club there was Invisible Monsters, the first book he wrote but which publishers rejected. Born in 1962, with a family background he calls "French and Russian by way of Ukraine", and raised in Washington state, Palahniuk had worked as a journalist and motor mechanic before attendance at local writers' workshops led him to try fiction in his mid-30s. The story of Invisible Monsters centres on a model who, after a horrific car accident, seeks gender reassignment surgery. When it was finally published in 1999, its narrative shape had been simplified after editors feared its "jumping" effect would be too much for readers to cope with. "I originally changed it because I wanted it to get published. They said the strange form could overwhelm the story – which was quite bizarre itself."
Now, he has brought out Invisible Monsters Remix, which takes us back to the spirit of the original – a director's cut. The reader is made to jump back and forth to different chapters rather than read in a linear way. This is, in its own way, a protest against any other form of electronic reading. "What I love about it is that it constantly reminds people that it's a physical book. It's a story that only a paper book can pull off."
Several of Palahniuk's books have been adapted for film, most notably Fight Club but also Choke, starring Anjelica Huston and Sam Rockwell. The film rights for Diary have sold and there is a musical adaptation of Fight Club by Fincher in the pipeline. Invisible Monsters is also to be adapted into a film – and is rumoured to have a star-studded cast. How does he feel about this tread towards adaptations? "Certain forms have certain conventions they have to adhere to. The movie has to have a happy ending while the book can be whatever it wants. I thought Fight Club was great as David Fincher's version. Brad Pitt (pictured above left with Edward Norton) was better than anything I imagined and wished for as [the character] Tyler. The only thing was that he was supposed to have long hair [Pitt didn't]."
Palahniuk is known for basing his drama on a meticulous process of research. The plotline for Choke was inspired by a conversation with a man at a sex addicts' support group; for Fight Club's "Project Mayhem", he drew on his time spent at the Cacophony Society, which conducts anarchic public pranks and stunts. For Invisible Monsters, he visited chat-rooms and telephone sex-lines.
"In the book, there were so many things beyond my experience. So I found out the details of gender re-assignment surgery through telephone chat-rooms. People would tell me the awful things that had happened to them as children."
Hearing these stories, and the dramatic voices of the tellers, was a curious experience in itself, he says. "People need to process these stories by telling them. The only way is through these profane confessions, in which I'm the priest."
The background to the novel Lullaby, a book about a child's song which has the ability to kill, was far more personal, and traumatic. The novel was written shortly after his father's murder. Fred Palahniuk died after his girlfriend's former partner, Dale Shackleford, shot them both and then dragged their bodies to a cabin to burn. Shackleford was found guilty and sentenced to death – an outcome that Palahniuk supported at the time. But earlier this year, the sentence was transmuted, he explains. "The sentence was overturned from death to a life sentence on a technicality. The sentence should have been passed by a jury but the judge passed the death penalty sentence."
Has it brought back the sadness, or anger, or sense of wild injustice, over losing his father? "It feels ... surprisingly nothing. It doesn't have an effect. All those feelings are exhausted in me. As long as I know I will never have to meet him."
Palahniuk's gore and horror, graphic as it is, is always counterbalanced by humour. Most importantly, he points out, the violence never involves a simple "victim". His characters orchestrate and inflict brutality or sexual transgression on themselves or each other willingly. "The only thing I shy away from is non-consensual violence. I can't write a story where someone is a simple victim because it's boring. Snuff goes into a grey area. She [the central porn star] is trying to set a world fornication record, by sleeping with hundreds of men. If it's done by choice, how it is different from trying to swim the Channel or climb Everest? The violence or tragedy somehow changes when it is permitted."
For an author who has specialised in giving us such graphic pictures of the "other" America, from its underbelly to its dark margins, has Barack Obama's bright new administration led to a change in his inner landscape, I ask, or even the outer landscape – the America he sees around him? "The world of American politics is more contentious than it has ever been in my lifetime," he says, in an explanation that sounds as much a description of his characters as the national psyche. "Obama's campaign was built on vilifying Bush republicans. Anything that starts out with hatred, contempt and vilification... I think America is just so in love with conflict. People could disengage from it in an instant, but we have an addiction to high levels of engagement with it that always keeps us in battles. It's a game we play."
Chuck Palahniuk's 'Invisible Monsters Remix' is published by Vintage
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