October 4, 2010
First published in: 1996
This edition: Prometheus, 1999 (Dutch translation)
Genre: drama / thriller / mystery
Cover illustration by Twentieth Century Fox; cover design by Erik Prinsen
Chuck Palahniuk has been a well-established author ever since publishing his successful debut publication Fight Club fourteen years ago. His loyal fan base loves him because he defies convention in writing; Palahniuk has his own distinct style and he makes his own rules. It all absolutely works for him, and puts him on the literary map as one of the most daring, most unique writers out there.
When you read Fight Club, you immediately get a sense of Palahniuk's work in general; Palahniuk has been setting himself apart from his debut publication on. If you like Fight Club, chances are you'll like a lot of his other novels.
Fight Club's (unnamed) narrator is a chronically jetlagged insomniac; his job requires him to travel constantly. He spends some of his free time in a support group to get an understanding of "real suffering"; what's insomnia compared to testicular cancer? The support group helps him to deal. He cries on Bob's chest. He can sleep at night.
Until Marla, another support group "tourist", joins the group. She makes our narrator feel aware that he's a big fake. He hates her, because Marla's presence is stopping him from letting go of his emotions (by way of Bob's chest). Sleep's not happening anymore. Our narrator can't deal anymore.
…until Tyler enters the fold. And with Tyler, enter Fight Club.
The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club.
The second rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club.
Secrecy, adrenalin and escalation together make for one hell of an unsettling story about self-destruction and the loss of self-control.
I already pointed out to you how Palahniuk is an author unlike any other. Some of his strengths are closely related to his particular writing style: a nonchalant manner which is quite meticulously thought out. Ordered chaos, with close attention paid to timing.
One of Palahniuk's techniques is the use of repetition, bringing the reader back to an earlier point in the narration very effectively. For Fight Club, the best example is that at one point, the narrator mentions he's read articles in Reader's Digest, with titles such as "I am Joe's liver". From here on out, the narrator regularly brings us back to this, at these perfectly timed moments. For example the narrator will state, "I am Joe's boiling point" when he's reached, well, a boiling point.
This use of repetition is something Palahniuk does often (and well), and it is one of my favorite techniques of his. The best way I can word it, is that Palahniuk just connects everything this way, and regularly brings the reader back to other crucial moments in the book. Palahniuk creates a flow in language – a complicated, but fluid dance. He keeps his readers involved.
Timing in general is one of the most admirable qualities Palahniuk possesses, in my own opinion, but combine that with a sense of humor and you've got fantastic comic timing. Palahniuk's a pretty damn funny guy, in a very deadpan way. His humor is dark, and it's blunt. This is what initially attracted me to his work back when I first read Lullaby: there are no cookie cutter sitcom jokes. The humor is in the crazy situations happening to his unusual characters, situations that make you feel disgusted and fascinated at the same time; meanwhile you can't help but laugh your ass off as you process the insanity you just "witnessed" – all in one single moment, regular repeats.
It's easy to think of Palahniuk as a bit of a sadist, letting his characters go through the craziest experiences and making it impossible for readers not to be amused by it – it feels a little like schadenfreude.
(I am Joe's belly laughter.)
It is therefore important to note that Fight Club isn't just funny for the sake of it; Palahniuk is an opinionated man and he utilizes this to go a lot deeper with his novels. (The way I read it,) Fight Club functions as social commentary: it addresses consumerism, materialism, the culture of waste. Fight Club starts off as a bunch of guys punching each other to feel and to deal, but the situation escalates as their dissatisfaction with society grows. It paints a picture of what happens when a feeling of emptiness meets the realization that you're NOT powerless: fanaticism, with insane consequences. Enter Project Mayhem, which is hilarious as Tyler takes a nihilistic stand against society and wreaks havoc in any way possible, but it's also quite sad in a way. As a reader you appreciate the dark humor, but you cannot forget that in real life, so many people feel lost and lash out against the world, not usually in funny ways. Palahniuk's dark humor never trivializes. Fight Club never turns into fluffy tripe. The book's an accomplishment; it's got a highly original storyline wrapped up in one man's own unique writing style.
Furthermore, Palahniuk pinpoints human lows and weaknesses, emphasis on human – and there's nothing fluffy about it.
Marla is, I think, my favorite Palahniuk character at this point. Brazen, unapologetic, dramatic. There are layers and layers to Marla; her total complexity make her absolutely fascinating.
The Narrator himself is pretty interesting too. Unnamed throughout the book (though I like to think he's named Joe), he's effortlessly mysterious. Having him tell his story in the present tense emphasizes how unaware the Narrator is of a lot that's going on with him and around him; the reader learns what the Narrator learns, when the Narrator learns it. Having an unreliable narrator who doesn't know what's what, it just adds a little zest to any kind of mystery / thriller plot line.
But for me, it has been the humanness (despite all the weirdness) which has left me feeling most impressed with this one. Fight Club is unusual and its characters characters are strange (most of Palahniuk's characters are), but they are very relatable in ways – we are all screw ups, in some way or another. I mean, nobody's perfect.
We all have our moments.
(We are Joe's heart, Joe's liver, Joe's boiling point.)
Chuck Palahniuk (1962) is an American author and freelance journalist, currently living in Vancouver. He is the author of several novels and works of non-fiction, listed below. You can find his official website The Cult at ChuckPalahniuk.net.
Trivia: Fight Club is the product of Palahniuk's frustration with a publisher after the latter rejected his manuscript for Invisible Monsters (which was eventually published anyway, three years after Fight Club).
Fight Club (1996)
Invisible Monsters (1999)
Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (2003; non-fiction)
Stranger than Fiction: True Stories (2004; non-fiction)
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2008-2010 and beyond.
September 16, 2008
Anchor books, 2001
Book bought in: New York City
At some point during my ‘reading career’, I needed to broaden my taste in books by stepping beyond the safety of predictable chicklit. I decided to read the likes of Gabriel García Márquez (for passion), Paulo Coelho (for depth), Douglas Coupland (for satire) and Chuck Palahniuk.
Yes. Chuck Palahniuk (for morbidity).
I first read his books Lullaby, Invisible Monsters and Survivor a few years back. It had been a while, so the time had come to try Choke, next.
Choke’s protagonist is everything you really don’t want to be or sit next to in a restaurant. He dropped out of medical school and earns his keep by working in a civil war theme park. But since he has his elderly mother’s care to pay for, he also routinely pretends to choke on food in dozens of restaurants, and allows people to rescue him. How does it work? These people who ‘saved’ his life are manipulated into feeling responsible for him staying alive and well, so he ends up receiving money from these… heroes on a regular basis.
So. That’s Victor Mancini for you.
While Choke is another example of Palahniuk’s unique ability to create bizarre people in dark, dysfunctional situations, he just pushed too hard and ended up going overboard.
Because I hadn’t actually mentioned the sex addict part of Victor Mancini yet. The graphically and often described sex addict part. It was all a little too disgusting, and even though with Palahniuk’s characters you should expect disturbing behaviour, I didn’t particularly care for reading every single detail of Victor’s addiction. Repeatedly.
Often, what he described wasn’t even relevant to the story and especially not necessary to build the character.
Mind, I’m not suggesting that Palahniuk could have done without the sexual addiction part all together. I’m not a prude, and the behaviour fit with the character. But I wish he would have paid less attention to that, and more attention to the rest of the story. This book could have had more potential instead of being a work of what I can only compare to cheap porn.
I should really stress that Palahniuk is a fine author, but this book to me is not proof of that.
It lacked the darker mood and the psychology which both impressed me when I read Lullaby.
It missed the surprising and often hilarious elements of Invisible Monsters.
And there was no real hidden depth to Victor, unlike to Tender Branson, the protagonist of Survivor.
Don’t let this review stop you from trying any of the above novels. Do not write off Chuck Palahniuk, I know I won’t.
But I will write off Choke. Personally, I’d much rather curl up on the sofa with some of that predictable chicklit I mentioned earlier in this review. Or, you know, actually choke.
February 9th 2008
Just my opinion, Chuck fans. To each their own.
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© Karin E. Lips
2008-2010 and beyond.