Chuck Palahniuk: Stranger than fiction

The cult author of 'Fight Club' delights in writing faint-inducing scenes. But the messiah of emasculated men is no longer happy to revel in his own bad-boy image. Hell, he won't even go shoplifting. Is it because his 'wife' is actually a man?

Robert Chalmers
Sunday 01 August 2004 00:00 BST

I'm not sure which line it was that caught her eye. It could have been the part about the stripper with the hosepipe and the German Shepherd. It might have been the phrase: "sitting on the back of the bike, each woman must snap her teeth on a hanging bull testicle, then bite off a mouthful." Whichever it was, I tell Chuck Palahniuk, the fellow-passenger who had allowed her gaze to stray across to my copy of his latest book, early that morning as I was flying into Portland from Los Angeles, abandoned any pretence at discretion and looked up, straight at me. It was the kind of stare you see people give a foreigner on the Tube, when they notice they're reading a newspaper in Arabic or Chinese: a double take to see if they can really be understanding what is in front of them. Except that this wasn't so much "How can you?" as "How could you?"

I'm not sure which line it was that caught her eye. It could have been the part about the stripper with the hosepipe and the German Shepherd. It might have been the phrase: "sitting on the back of the bike, each woman must snap her teeth on a hanging bull testicle, then bite off a mouthful." Whichever it was, I tell Chuck Palahniuk, the fellow-passenger who had allowed her gaze to stray across to my copy of his latest book, early that morning as I was flying into Portland from Los Angeles, abandoned any pretence at discretion and looked up, straight at me. It was the kind of stare you see people give a foreigner on the Tube, when they notice they're reading a newspaper in Arabic or Chinese: a double take to see if they can really be understanding what is in front of them. Except that this wasn't so much "How can you?" as "How could you?"

Palahniuk [pronounced Paula-nik], who never wearies of recalling how many dozens of people fainted during his readings on his last promotional tour, smiles at this reference to his new collection of peculiar reportage, Non-Fiction.

"It was a look of abject disgust," I explain, "with a hint of what might have been pity."

"People get pissy," he says, mishearing me, "because they have an expectation that a book will be about culture with a capital c. And refinement." Anyway, he says, "reading someone else's book at the same time - that's kind of voyeuristic".

"I should have slapped her, do you think?"

"She was probably desperate to talk to you."

"I don't think so."

"It takes a lot," he adds, "to get people talking in airplanes. But once they start talking, you just can't shut them up."

It's one of those things, he suggests, that only happen at altitude. Here on the ground floor of Portland's Heathman Hotel, I can tell this isn't a problem I'm going to have with Chuck.

I'd checked in to the Heathman under the impression - this may have been my mistake - that we'd agreed to meet here, then move on to talk at his house, something he never does. But when Palahniuk arrives, he says that he lives three hours' drive away, in Washington state, and that in any case he can spare me only 90 minutes. He's busy for the rest of the day, preparing trophies to give away to his fans, and "cutting price-tags off soft toys".

"I can cut tags," I tell him.

Palahniuk gives me the kind of look you might get from David Bowie if you approached him towards closing time in the American Bar at the Savoy and suggested going for chips.

The hotel lounge is empty, but Chuck still opts for the most distant corner table. He's wearing a grey T-shirt and bottle-green cargo shorts and he looks very clean, like a Banana Republic mannequin with the face of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. This comparison with the character of Norman Bates has been made before; when I came across it in the cuttings, I presumed it had been inserted casually, as such phrases usually are. Real people never remind you of Norman Bates. But Palahniuk - with his plausible smile, his fastidious manner, and eerie gentility - is different. Palahniuk really does.

Having just re-read Fight Club (his first book, published eight years ago; a brutal celebration of machismo that inspired the 1999 film starring Brad Pitt) I was expecting a more confrontational man.

"I'm only confrontational with my friends," he says. "With you - who I don't know - I am going to be nice as pie."

"Are you sure?"

He pauses. "Yeah."

Palahniuk, who is 43, has published seven books since Fight Club. His best writing is sparse, acutely observed and very, very funny. Probably the finest example of his brilliantly original work is Choke, which appeared five years ago, and is about to be filmed. Victor Mancini, whose social life revolves around sex-addiction clinics, is struggling to support his Alzheimic mother. He is employed as a servant in "Colonial Dunsboro" - a themepark recreation of an 18th-century village, where staff are fined for anachronistic behaviour, such as chewing gum, or whistling tunes by Erasure.

"The miller," Victor notes, "is cooking crystal meth. The inn-keeper deals acid to bored teenagers who get dragged here on school trips." The potter is on methadone; the stableboy hides headphones under his tricorn hat, "plugged in on special K and twitching to his own private rave".

In restaurants, Victor simulates choking in order to bond with, then sponge off, people who leap to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre. "In another minute," Palahniuk writes, "the arms will come around me from behind. Some stranger will be hugging me tight, double-fisting me under the ribcage and breathing into my ear: 'You're OK.'"

Non-Fiction includes an account of the Missoula Montana Testicle Festival - the piece I was reading on the plane - an audience with singer Marilyn Manson, and Chuck's recollections of a bargain he struck with a friend who let him watch her dissecting corpses in exchange for an introduction to Brad Pitt.

Chuck Palahniuk is, admittedly, not for everybody. The writer, whose fan website is called "The Cult", is one of the few novelists who's engrossed in his own image to a degree you might expect from a rock star. His readings attract young men who dress like - and, in some cases, want to be - him. A few have self-mutilated in homage to Tyler Durden, Pitt's character in Fight Club - a book which, the author recently announced, may become a Broadway musical.

Palahniuk's work, advertised by his publishers as "sick", has become increasingly morbid, visceral and determinedly revolting.

"Every time I write something," - in his words - "I think, this is the most offensive thing I will ever write. But no. I always surprise myself."

On his next tour, the author will be reading a new story which deals frankly with the subject of - you may be ahead of me here - paedophilia. It will struggle to out-gross "Guts" - the story, which caused blackouts on last year's visit, describes the experience of a boy who sits on the extractor flue in a swimming pool. The youth finds that it sucks out his intestines, leaving him floating underwater, tethered to the floor by "a thick rope of veins and knotted guts" which he has to gnaw through to get back to the surface.

Palahniuk collects books of autopsy photographs, like Damien Hirst did as an adolescent. There are times when the writer's determination to horrify can appear - OK, is - puerile. "If I told you how it tasted," he writes, in "Guts", "you would never again eat calamari".

In England, I recall, people passed out predominantly in the south. Falling like dominoes in Cambridge. Nobody fainted in Leeds.

Palahniuk seems to count Leeds as a defeat.

"People fainted most where they also laughed a lot."

"And there was nothing to laugh at in Leeds?"

"In Leeds," he says, "I got held up in traffic. I was an hour and a half late."

"So they were too hacked off to pass out?"


At readings, he pelts the audience with artificial limbs, wrestling masks and plastic vomit - behaviour which, his readers might assume, is altogether in character for Palahniuk, who emerges from his own work as a man undaunted by the prospect of public humiliation, or arrest.

For many years he's participated in Portland's "Santa Rampage". An early form of flash-mobbing, it involves 500 people assembling, dressed as Father Christmas, and drinking hallucinogenic cocktails before charging en masse into unsuitable venues. They once attempted to occupy the town's ice-rink, with a view to raising the spirit of local anti-hero Tonya Harding. "The jolly red tide," Palahniuk wrote, "crashes elegant parties, storms through swanky restaurants, boogies in strip clubs, and generally keeps Portland's Central Precinct busy and paranoid." Non-Fiction includes a report of a day he spent roaming Seattle dressed as a Dalmatian.

I'd somehow assumed from all this that Palahniuk would be a convivial, forthcoming sort of character; the kind of a guy who knows how to have fun. But these traits are not easy to identify in the tense, earnest figure in front of me.

"Is it big, the Santa Claus cocktail?" I ask him.

"The Reindeer Fucker?" he replies. "No. You drink it in shot glasses. It's marijuana soaked for weeks in Bacardi, which is then strained."

"That must help with your 'Ho, ho, ho'."

"It does, yes. But that's not something I like to do," he says, "because I start losing track of detail and it's hard for me to unpack the experience." ("Unpack" is one of a number of words - another is "consensual" - which he uses repeatedly.)

I find it hard to imagine him facing a police line in his Santa suit. It's even more difficult to picture him stealing, though his writing refers to the exhilaration he's experienced while shoplifting.

"The attraction is the adventure," he explains. "You can always buy another leather jacket. But you can't buy that adventure. You can't buy that thrill."

"You sound like Lord Henry Wootton in * The Picture of Dorian Gray," I say. "'Crime is to the lower orders what art is to us - simply a means of procuring extraordinary sensations.'"

"It's the feeling of excitement. The feeling of stealth. Of knowing exactly what's going on, at a certain moment, all around you."

"OK, you've convinced me," I tell him. "Shall we have a go?"

"Well..." Chuck's enthusiasm seems to wane. "I haven't shoplifted since I was 13."

"I've run out of socks."

"Anyhow, the charm..." Palahniuk has begun to change the subject, then stops. " Socks? Well, socks... socks are... really easy."

"If we get caught," I suggest, "we'll tell them it was research."

"I can see what you're thinking," he says. "Nordstrom's store is only two blocks away. But shoplifting doesn't really appeal to me now. My publishers," he adds, "probably wouldn't like me talking about this."

'Once a writer is born into a family," the Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, "that family is doomed." The Palahniuks got their tragedy in early.

Chuck grew up in a trailer in Burbank, a small town 200 miles east of here, across the mountains in Washington. His paternal grandfather shot his wife dead in an argument about how much she'd paid for a sewing machine. The writer's father, Fred (three at the time of the murder), once said that his earliest memory was of cowering under a bed, watching his father's boots, and the barrel of his rifle, as he searched the house for something else to kill before turning the weapon on himself.

"My grandfather was hit over the head by a crane boom in Seattle," Palahniuk says. "Some of the family claimed he was never a violent, crazy person before that. Some say he was. It depends who you believe."

Chuck's trailer, which he shared with his parents, a brother and two sisters, was opposite the Burbank Tavern, where Fred, a railway worker, was an enthusiastic patron. The writer has memories of his dad taking him to help steal food from derailed trucks. When Chuck was 14, his father left home. His mother still lives in Washington.

Palahniuk graduated from the University of Oregon in journalism then, after a brief spell on a local newspaper, worked at Freightliner Trucks - first as a mechanic, then writing manuals. He was there 13 years and only began to write when he attended the weekly "workshops" held by Portland author Tom Spanbauer.

Palahniuk's first novel, Invisible Monsters - about the relationship between a disfigured fashion model and a transvestite seeking a sex change - was rejected by publishers (it eventually appeared in 1999.) He says he wrote Fight Club - the story of bored office workers who meet to beat the stuffing out of each other in a basement - to "offend, to shock and to punish" people who wouldn't publish "my 'good' work".

Chuck says he used to enjoy fights himself. He used to like to "beat the crap outta fools after a few drinks", according to one adoring article in a men's magazine, which describes his conversation as "stream of testosterone". (Palahniuk is especially popular with this readership, and has serialised stories in Playboy.)

"Every time I'd feel so good afterwards - being physically and emotionally exhausted, and being able to sleep so well." There was "also the bond it created with people I'd previously hated - we would hash out our differences in a very physical, intense way, and after that we'd be best friends. I saw so much value in fighting. I still do."

Fighting, says Palahniuk, is "such a consen-sual act. The best fights don't occur between strangers. They occur between friends who trust each other."

The tone of these remarks has something in common with his earlier description of the Heimlich manoeuvre, and his article on the Combine Harvester Demolition Derby, in Non-Fiction ("Porker Express locks its header under the rear end of Rambulance... Good Ol' Boys rams Porker Express from behind, driving its pink rear end into the dirt"). They all sound like coarse metaphors for sex; they all sound erotic.

"Erotic," says Palahniuk or, in the case of fighting, "spiritual. It's sort of like church."

His father loved Fight Club. When Fred met a new girlfriend, Donna Fontaine, in early 1999, he got Chuck to talk to her on the phone because she liked the book so much. Fred had been divorced for 20 years when he saw Fontaine's personal ad, headed "Kismet".

"He started dating her," Palahniuk says, "not knowing she had a violent ex-husband." Coming home from their third date, they were surprised by her former spouse, Dale Shackelford, who shot them both dead. "That was April 1999."

Palahniuk says that his father, deprived of his mother by the first tragedy, dated a succession of women in an effort to replace her. Then, when he'd apparently succeeded, it turned out he'd simply found the muzzle of a different gun.

"He came full circle," says Chuck.

The writer, who was taking the anti-depressant Zoloft in the aftermath of the tragedy, requested the death penalty. (Shackelford had an appeal turned down at the end of June.)

"Are you at ease with that decision?"

"I requested it. There's no going back."

"What if there was?"

"There isn't."

"But if you could?"

"I don't regret it. I sat with the medical examiner, and he gave me case histories - children he had abused, murders he's suspected of having committed."

In any case, says Palahniuk, who believes in God but not divine judgment, "I don't see the death penalty as destroying a man's existence. I see it as destroying this incarnation. I don't see it as destroying anything integral to his existence as a human being."

"Shackelford might not see it like that, sitting on death row in Idaho."

"He'll probably die after I die," says Palahniuk.

Fontaine, he explains, had met Shackelford when she was giving legal classes to prisoners.

"Now he's using the skills she taught him to appeal his conviction for her murder."

Palahniuk is noticeably ill at ease here in a public space in Portland, the city where he'd lived for almost 25 years before his recent move. He says he's widely disliked for Fugitives and Refugees, his entertaining travel book on the city which was published last year. It alienated locals so intensely, he claims, that he decided to move up the coast. "I am persona non grata in this town," he says.

("If he really believes that," a Portland journalist told me, "he is insane. People here are proud of him." Like cartoonist John Callahan, the band Pink Martini, or Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love, the reporter adds, "Palahniuk is a quirky claim to fame for a city that has few others.")

A recurring theme in Palahniuk's life and work is the need to create artificial events in order to mix with people: Cluedo nights and charades; fight clubs and storytelling evenings. In 1988 he enrolled with Landmark Forum, the controversial "group awareness programme" strongly influenced by the cult "est". The writer has said that some of the ideas in his work, notably that the sources of our fears should be confronted and embraced, were inspired by what he heard when he was attending Landmark meetings. "Half my friends call it a cult and half have done it," according to Palahniuk. "I'm totally cool with both groups."

Spanbauer's workshop was another example of his fondness for a world with its own rules and language. Palahniuk describes himself as a minimalist; he quotes the structuralist Jacques Derrida, and talks about narrative devices such as "burnt tongue" (snagging a reader's progress by using an unusual phrase - a device Shakespeare used, though he didn't know its name).

While it's undeniable that this literary philosophy has worked magnificently for him, I'm not convinced that, when he's writing well, Palahniuk's qualities - economy of style, wit and invention - are substantially different from those of any other good writer, whether it's Jonathan Coe, Emily Brontë or James M Cain.

When he isn't on his game, there's not much minimalist about Palahniuk at all; if anything, he has a tendency to repetition. Take this account of the effects of testosterone, from Chuck's bodybuilding period, recalled in Non-Fiction: "You're nothing but real estate between your legs," Palahniuk writes, making his point - clearly enough, you might think - the first time. "It's the same as those illustrations in Alice in Wonderland where she's eaten the cake," he continues, "and grown until her arm sticks out the front door." He goes on to explain, for any readers who have missed his point, that: "It's not your arm that sticks out." To be on the safe side he adds that "wearing Spandex pants is out of the question".

But Non-Fiction as a whole is a fascinating addition to his work. Palahniuk's instincts as a reporter are almost invariably good: he is drawn to phenomena which are genuinely remarkable, for instance, not to celebrity for its own sake. It's true that Palahniuk can be self-vaunting; he quotes Marilyn Manson as saying: "I don't think I have ever told anyone this" - a phrase most writers would omit on the grounds that it's the equivalent of holding up a cue card marked "applause".

At the same time he approaches each story on his terms, with a healthy irreverence, and has little regard for subjects who are over-protective of their privacy. In one piece, Palahniuk broaches the subject of sex with a team of submariners, though he was asked not to. The topic, he says, was "the invisible elephant in the corner". In his interview with Manson, he discloses the pseudonym the singer uses in hotels, and disobeys, then reveals, orders from the singer's publicist. Palahniuk once went on the radio claiming he had got hold of Oprah Winfrey's diaphragm, and was planning to auction it on eBay.

Palahniuk's sense of fun is less conspicuous when it comes to his own life, which has been such that he should know an invisible elephant when he bumps into one. He lives with his male partner of 12 years, who has been publicly acknowledged for less than a year. In one profile from 1999, he's quoted as talking about his "wife".

Before I left for the US to meet with Palahniuk, I'd tried, unsuccessfully, to contact the author of this profile - a friend and former colleague based in London. On the way to Oregon I stopped in LA where - in a demonstration of Palahniuk's knack for the bizarre coincidence - the writer I'd been looking for was in the same hotel as me. I walked into him in the lift.

"He says what?" asked my former colleague, when I told him Chuck has come out. "He talked about his wife. He told me..."

"'...he has an agreement with his wife to protect their privacy by saying nothing about her'," I interrupt, "'an agreement he honours to the point of declining to reveal even her name. They have no plans to have children.'"

"I might have said 'spouse'," Palahniuk ventures, when I mention this to him. "When I say 'spouse', people make an assumption."

"It just seems odd that you should make any pretence over your sexuality. In Non-Fiction, when you're describing the effects of weightlifting supplements, you write 'You might see an attractive woman and go: Grrrrrrr!'"

"Ninety per cent of the time it's not about me," says Palahniuk. He launches into an attack on "the trend, when you are writing, to push the interviewer forward". He goes on, in a mocking tone: " Today I met Chuck Palahniuk and before that I had to decide what shirt I was going to wear. And getting there I had all these problems in the taxi..."

"Hang on - aren't you the man who wrote a profile of the actress Juliette Lewis [republished in Non-Fiction] which culminates in a detailed description of your row with the cab driver who took you there, with a lot about how massive the fare was, and how the driver refused to take your credit card, but phone calls made the following day proved you right and your driver wrong?"

"Right," says Palahniuk. "But... again... see... I'd never have put that in the [original] piece."

Palahniuk's announcement of his sexual orientation was not the smooth operation he might have hoped for. It occurred accidentally, in a manner which reveals that Chuck is as well placed as his swooning Cambridge fans to appreciate the formidable power of his own voice.

In September 2003, as he was about to embark on a tour, Palahniuk gave an interview to Karen Valby of Entertainment Weekly magazine. Just before publication, he became persuaded that she planned to publish statements he'd made in confidence, and "out" him. In an attempt to beat her to the punch, Palahniuk posted an angry voice diary entry on The Cult website. In it, he announced the true gender of his spouse, and made highly personal allegations relating to the interviewer and a member of her family.

When Valby's piece appeared the next day, it made no reference to his intimate life other than to say: "Palahniuk has no wife and declines to discuss his personal life on the record."

By the time his audioblog was removed, many fans had heard it (The Cult receives as many as 5,500 visits a day). And according to the site's webmaster, Dennis Widmyer, the blog was deleted because it was "tainted by some words Chuck said about the reporter. The removal had nothing to do with Chuck's recanting that he came out."

Palahniuk - by then in London - posted a new voice message urging fans to relax and "not kill anybody": it has been reported ( Entertainment Weekly says wrongly) that Valby received death threats from Palahniuk's self-appointed defenders. The writer (who once told a journalist "I wish more people would rise to the occasion") went on to apologise for having "mis-represented, because I mis-remembered, some details about Karen's private life. I deeply regret doing that. It was something I did out of anger and fear, and it was something I did inaccurately, and something I wish I had not done."

The episode would have discomforted anybody, let alone a writer whose public image is integral to his marketing.

"So Chuck has come out," commented the Gay News column in Portland's Willamette Weekly. "In efforts to revive their careers, so did Tab Hunter and fellow B-list celebrity Richard Chamberlain." The writer then posed the question which has been repeatedly voiced by Palahniuk's friends and enemies alike - and is surely the sanest response to this episode: "Who cares?"

Why invent Mrs Palahniuk in the first place? If what he said in 1999 was ambiguous, what on earth made my former colleague write the line: "They have no plans to have children?"

"Well, that burden has gone now," Palahniuk replies. "That fear has gone."

It's possible that coming out might have damaged his standing with traditionalists in his Playboy constituency. Or had he felt that his publishers might be uneasy about him coming out? (The explanation he gave to a friend of mine after a reading.)

"No," says Palahniuk.

Now that, as he puts it, "the big bomb has exploded," he tells me, he feels no need, when being interviewed, "to be entertaining any more. What you get now is a me that has an hour and a half. And money in the bank. And I don't owe anybody any more. And I'm not interested in..."

Palahniuk looks at his watch.

"Actually I have to go. And work on 14 brass trophies for tomorrow's books thing. And I'm more interested in getting ready my trophies, and 100 stuffed animals, than I am in doing this."

"You're sure you don't need a hand?"

"I'm doing it at a friend's. It's wrong to take strangers there. I have to go. I have to pack. I have," Palahniuk adds, "a lot of errands."

Chuck says he'll think about giving me numbers for a few people, including Spanbauer. When I e-mail him to ask what he's decided, he replies: "I made it clear to my publishers that I'd do no more personal profiles. Any meetings would be about my work... to that extent I can't put you in touch with these people. If this means the profile is scrubbed," he continues, "that's fine by me."

"You don't enjoy doing this much," I'd said to Palahniuk as he was leaving, "do you?"

"I understand that this is part of promoting a book," he says. "But at this point I really wish I could bring down the curtain and go back in time, and do no more."

In the past, he tells me, he has made the mistake of being too eager to please his interviewers. He says those days are over.

"That's just my problem," I told him. "I've met you five years too late. Five years ago, you might have come out to steal socks."

"The thing is," he replies, "that in the past, there was this big, looming thing of - please don't ask me about my private life. So five years ago I think I'd have said: I don't want to talk about my private life. But I will go and steal socks with you - any day of the week. If you'll please just leave me alone."

'Non-Fiction' is published by Cape, priced £10.99

Pull no punches: The making of a modern cult

Fight Club 1996

Emasculated men everywhere who 'used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their Ikea catalogue' find a voice in this story of self-help group addiction, bomb-making and nihilism.

Invisible Monsters 1999

Written before 'Fight Club', this is a camp story of a disfigured model who 'realises there's more power in people being afraid to acknowledge your presence than on people focusing on you all the time'.

Survivor 2000

Tender Branson, the only surviving member of a cult which has committed mass suicide, dictates his life story into the black-box voice recorder of an airliner as it cruises over the Pacific Ocean on its fatal flight.

Choke 2001

Let a stranger save your life and they'll feel responsible for you forever. Or so Victor Mancini believes. But the themepark attendant who spends his evenings choking in restaurants doesn't bank on his own powers.

Lullaby 2002

An estate agent who sells haunted houses, an incidental serial killer and a blackmailing eco-terrorist scour the libraries of America to find and destroy every last copy of a deadly children's story in this exploration of global epidemics.

Diary 2003

Her builder husband may be lying in a coma but for Misty there is no escape. Angry home-owners are after her for the vile messages Peter has left hidden away on the walls of rooms he's concealed when remodelling their houses.

Fugitives and Refugees 2003

Palahniuk's version of a travel guide takes readers on a tour of underworld Portland, where he lived for 25 years. He recently moved away, claiming this book made him unpopular in the Oregon town.

Non-Fiction 2004

This collection of journalism includes interviews with Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis, reports from such curious events as a combine harvester demolition derby, and accounts of Palahniuk's own bizarre adventures.

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