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Novelist Chuck Palahniuk is best known for his dark comedies that explore themes of commercialism, personal identity, nihilism—a belief that life has no objective meaning—and free will. Beginning with the award-winning Fight Club (1996), his unconventional novels feature shocking, if not bizarre, premises, and are sustained by his black humor and cynical viewpoint. Critics often give Palahniuk’s novels mixed reviews, admitting to be entertained amidst often disturbing material. He also has published at least two collections of nonfiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Charles Michael Palahniuk on February 21, 1962, in Pasco, Washington, he was the son of Fred and Carol Palahniuk. His father was a railroad brakeman while his mother was an office manager at a nuclear power plant. Raised in a mobile home in Burbank, Washington, his childhood was unspectacular, but colored by a violent past. His paternal grandfather killed his wife and would have killed his three-year-old son had he been able to find him. Instead, his paternal grandfather killed himself. When his parents separated and divorced when Palahniuk was fourteen, he and his siblings were frequently left in the care of their maternal grandparents, who lived in eastern Washington.
In the early 1980s, Palahniuk entered the University of Oregon, where he studied journalism and discovered that he had a talent for words. While a student, he worked as an intern for KLCC, a National Public Radio member station in Eugene, Oregon. Palahniuk earned his B.A. in 1986. After earning his degree, Palahniuk moved to Portland, Oregon, where he wrote for a newspaper. He also worked as a diesel mechanic for Freightliner for thirteen years and wrote manuals on repairing trucks. Being a mechanic allowed him to observe people, allowing him to be fascinated by what drives people to behave as they do.
Launched Fiction Career
Still an avid reader and lover of books, Palahniuk decided to start writing fiction. He began attending writing workshops hosted by Tom Spanbauer, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author. Spanbauer influenced Palahniuk to write in what became a signature minimalist style. Palahniuk completed two unpublished novels in the early 1990s, then published his disturbing first novel, Light Club, in 1996. The novel features a secret fight club in which men beat each other bloody, and whose members eventually develop into an anarchist army that is funded by selling soap made of lip suctioned human fat. It was inspired by his own fights, and the lack of response his bruised and bloody face got from coworkers. Fight Club won the 1997 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the 1997 Oregon Book Award.
Fight Club was made into a cult hit film of the same name in 1999, bringing more attention to Palahniuk as an author. Because of the success of the book and film, Palahniuk was able to focus on writing full-time. Also in 1999, he published two more novels, Survivor and Invisible Monsters. Survivor focuses on the survivor of a cult who becomes a celebrity before his death in the Australian desert, while Invisible Monsters was a revised version of one of his first unpublished works, a shocking, twisted tale about a former model, out for revenge.
Just as Palahniuk was achieving success, he suffered a personal tragedy. In 1999, his father and his father’s girlfriend, Donna Fontaine, were murdered by her abusive ex-husband, Dale Shackelford, whom she had put in jail for battery. After his release, Shackelford had followed them home, shot them, and tried to cover up the murder by setting the house on fire. In 2001, Shackelford was caught and found guilty on two counts of first degree murder. Palahniuk attended the trial and found inspiration for a later book.
As Palahniuk was dealing with his own tragedy, many Americans were also facing a wide-scale trauma. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked a number of commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people lost their lives in the attacks and unsettled American society in the years following the event.
Palahniuk’s next novel was Choke (2001), which was a New York Times bestseller. The novel focuses on Victor Mancini, a medical school dropout who works at a historical village and supplements his income by faking choking in restaurants, hoping for a payout from whoever saves him. Choke was followed by the novel, Lullaby (2002), in which the author attempts to come to terms with the violence in his own family. The story focuses on a poetic verse that can kill someone if sung or even hummed, and was to be the first in a horror trilogy. Palahniuk won both the 2003 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the 2003 Bram Stoker Award for Lullaby.
In 2003, Palahniuk published two more books, the novel, Diary, and nonfiction travelogue, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon. His next book was also nonfiction, a collection of articles and essays on figures in American culture, such as Juliette Lewis and Marilyn Man-son, as well as a take on his own life, Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories (2004). Continuing to write challenging fiction, Haunted (2005) centers on seventeen writers who answer an ad for a writer’s retreat. Once they arrive at the retreat, they find themselves trapped in a huge theater working to write their masterpieces. The result is seventeen horror stories by writers who soon learn that they may also be kidnap victims.
Publishing two novels in two years, Palahniuk put out Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey in 2007, and Snuff in 2008. The former tells the story of the life of a folk hero, from his small-town beginnings to his time with the Nighttimers group in the big city, while the latter focuses on three men waiting their turn to have sex with a porn star who wants to break a world record for serial fornication. Continuing to work on novels and nonfiction, Palahniuk lives with his partner on a former church compound outside of Vancouver, Washington.
Works in Literary Context
As an author, Palahniuk favors a limited vocabulary and short sentences, telling a story in what might be called a conversational tone. The narratives of his novels often start at the story’s end, with the main character then relating the events that led to the moment where the novel beings. Through his novels, Palahniuk offers his views on societal problems, such as materialism. His characters are usually working-class individuals who struggle to sustain their personal needs. His stories always emphasize the rampant consumerism of American contemporary society. As a writer, Palahniuk was greatly influenced by Amy Hempel, GordonIish, Ira Levin, S0ren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michael Foucault, and Albert Camus.
Palahniuk’s early novels often focus on the concept of identity, how the protagonist can transform, and the consequences of that transformation. Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Choke all deal with this subject. Fight Club, for example, revolves around an unnamed man who is disillusioned with American society. He has a bland, unhappy life, and has been seeking solace, however undeserved, by faking terminal illness at support group meetings. He also befriends Tyler Durden, an unpredictable young man who suggests they start a fight club, where men participate in fist fights as a way of dealing with personal demons. In Survivor, Tender Branson moves from being a member of the Creedish Death Cult who worked as an unpaid servant in exchange for donations to the church. After a raid on the cult and a mass suicide of most of its members, media interest in Branson turned him into a celebrity and book-selling self-help guru. The transformation in Invisible Monsters is both physical and personal and concerns several characters. Shannon McFarland is a former model who lost the lower half of her face in a shooting. She is left without a career and filled with anger at her ex-boyfriend, Manus, and ex-girlfriend, Evie, who had an affair after the shooting. Convinced that the pair may be responsible for her wounds, she goes on a cross-country trip with a new friend, the trans-gendered Brandy Alexander, to confront Evie in Texas. In the process, Shannon and Brandy kidnap Manus and start secretly feeding him female hormone pills.
Palahniuk often uses and incorporates acts of violence into novels. Fight Club revolves around a club for men who are required to participate in fist fights. The first fight club inspires countless others. Durden, the force behind the clubs, has larger, destructive plans for his army of thousands of nihilists. His Project Mayhem is a plan to terrorize corporate America by attacking the world’s tallest building. Similarly, Survivor begins with a focus on Tender Branson moments before his death, as his plane is about to crash into the Australian desert. Throughout the story, it is revealed that his brother, Adam, might be a serial killer and the mass suicide at the Creedish Death Cult may, in fact, be murders. Suicide is also found in Diary, in which artist Misty Marie Kleinman writes a diary for her carpenter husband, Peter Wilmot, who lies in a coma following a suicide attempt. The prevention of violence is at the heart of the horror novel, Lullaby. A newspaper reporter named Carl Streator discovers a link between an ancient African tribal poem and the death of five babies from SIDS. The poem was originally intended as a way to decrease the tribes’ population in desperate times, but has now been carelessly reprinted in a book. Teaming up with a real estate agent, Helen Hoover Boyle, who knows about the verse, Streator seeks to destroy all known copies of the book. Rant focuses on a folk hero who may have been a serial killer. Palahniuk’s infamous short story, “Guts,” which has reportedly caused dozens of people to faint upon hearing it read aloud by the author, contains descriptions of disturbing accidents that result in serious bodily injury.
Works in Critical Context
Though Palahniuk is considered a ”cult figure” in the American literary scene, critics have generally reviewed his works unfavorably. He has been labeled a ”shock writer” because of the often lurid subjects presented in his novels. Many reviewers claim that his books promote nihilism, sexism, and self-destruction. Despite the negative reviews, Palahniuk has been praised for his logical, philosophical, and futuristic style of storytelling. Other critics have lauded his sense of humor, use of language, and touches of surrealism.
Critics were both disturbed and fascinated by Light Club. A Publishers Weekly reviewer warns that almost any reader is likely to find something offensive. The reviewer calls the book ”caustic, outrageous, bleakly funny, violent and always unsettling” as well as ”utterly original.” Stuart Jefferies, in the Guardian Unlimited, considers the literary and social relevance of Fight Club, calling the novel ”the 90s reply to American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s satire on youthful white-collar greed and banality in Wall Street in the 80s.” In Booklist, Thomas Gaughan describes Fight Club as ”gen X’s most articulate assault yet on baby-boomer sensibilities” and a work sure to disturb young reader’s parents. He concludes that the novel is ”powerful, and possibly brilliant.”
Like Fight Club and other novels by Palahniuk, the horror novel Lullaby received mixed reviews. Janet Maslin in the New York Times is both fascinated and repelled by Palahniuk’s ”tireless pursuit of the outrageous” in Lullaby. Like Kurt Vonnegut, she writes, Palahniuk ”juggles nihilism and idealism with fluid, funny ease, and he repeats and rephrases word patterns until they take on an almost mystical aspect.” Virginia Heffernan, reviewing the novel for the New York Times Book Review, is less impressed, dubbing the novel ”a nauseating picaresque” with ”less than zero sacred.” A Kirkus Review contributor saw more to like in the novel, calling it the kind of ”outrageous, darkly comic fun . . . you’d expect from Palahniuk.” Booklist reviewer John Green concludes that what separates Lullaby from Palahniuk’s earlier work ”is its emotional depth, its ability to explore the unbearable pain of losing a child just as richly as it laments our consume-or-die worldview.”
- Bunn, Alison. ”Open Book.” The Advocate (May 20, 2008): 42.
- Gaughan, Thomas. Review of Fight Club. Booklist (July 1996): 1804.
- Green, John. Review of Lullaby. Booklist (August 2002): 1887.
- Heffernan, Virginia. Review of Lullaby. New York Times Book Review (October 20, 2002): 17.
- Maslin, Janet. Review of Lullaby. New York Times (September 12, 2002): E9.
- Randall, Lee. ”Devilishly Funny Chuck Palahniuk’s Exhaustively Researched Work is No Joy-Ride, but Snuff Will Tickle Every Funny Bone You’ve Got.” The Scotsman (August 13, 2008): 40.
- Review of Fight Club. Publishers Weekly (June 3,1996): 60.
- Review of Lullaby. Kirkus Reviews (June 15, 2002): 834.
- Tuss, Alex. ”Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.” The Journal of Men’s Studies (Winter 2004): 93.
- Jeffries, Stuart. ”Bruise Control.” Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved December 8, 2008, from http://www. guardian.co.uk/books/2000/may/12/fiction.chuckpalahniuk. Last updated on May 12, 2000.
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