Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Survivor - Chuck Palahniuk

Last Thursday, when my parents left for the weekend and I was left in charge of the dogs and the rabbit, and after taking the rabbit to the Wilmette Pet Store to get his teeth cut, I got my library card from the Winnetka Public Library. The woman assisting me kept asking if I was familiar with the library and I told her I hadn't been there since the late 90's--more accurately, the mid 90's--and I used to have my library card kept in their filing drawer so I didn't have to remember to bring it with me when I would go there on my bike, or with my mom. Now I keep it in my car. She said they had added a lot of online resources since the late 90's.

I went there because I wanted to check out a book by David Foster Wallace. I said I would try to get Infinite Jest out of the garage in Northbrook during the open house on Sunday, but even before then I thought it would be difficult (And it was. After failing on the first attempt, I'm putting it off until this coming Saturday now.). All David Foster Wallace books were checked out or reserved. Six days after his suicide, he was unavailable at this particular library at least. Anyone who has read Killing Yourself to Live (one of the first entries on Flying Houses, if you care to do a bit of exploration through our lucrative past here) knows that suicide irreducibly improves your status as a major artist. It makes all of your work so much more interesting. It provides another lens through which to interpret your oeuvre. It turns you into a cult figure, the cult of personality that continues to transform tragedy into inimitable blockbuster success for those the departed have left behind. The MacArthur Genius Grant award winners were just announced. Winners received $500,000 over five years. I am so dying to win one of those one day. DFW did, and who knows how rich he died. It seems, however, that the economic crisis in which our country is embroiled is not responsible for his demise, though it may be the case in recent times for scores of other individuals not nearly as successful on a commercial level than he was.

I walked around the library and saw Chuck Palahniuk's books. The film adaptation of Choke is being released very soon. I thought it might be fun to try to read that before I saw the movie. Because I will see the movie. Everyone knows (or should know) that Fight Club was based on Palahniuk's debut novel. I read that book after seeing the movie, and it greatly improved my appreciation of that film. At first I found it a bit strange, but it is a film that has the rare ability to affect the global consciousness, like Pulp Fiction, for example. This is thanks in no small part to David Fincher's direction, but anyone who has read the book knows the old adage that the book is better than the movie holds true in this case, though it is still hard to imagine anybody but Edward Norton and Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter as the main characters while reading.

Survivor is Palahniuk's second novel, the follow-up to Fight Club. And it would be very difficult to slam this novel. It is just as good as Fight Club, and without the semi-questionable use of hallucinatory delusions as a primary plot element. It is more grounded in reality, though obviously it is a satire, and many of the elements are exagerrated. However, having been published in 1999, it is quite prescient for that moment in American culture. Its setting aboard a hijacked 747 and its plot elements concerning prophetic visions of disasters might compel professors of literature to include it on the reading list of pseudo-9/11 fiction, but it never goes quite so far as to suggest that calamity. The best warning the main character can give for a disaster about to occur, in a 30 second commercial, is that a pack of killer bees would be arriving in Dallas soon.

The novel's main character is named Tender Branson--and there are many other Tenders that he grew up with. He is from the religious cult known as the Creedish. Palahniuk does an excellent job of detailing all the beliefs of the cult, making it believable and real, and connecting it to previous mass-suicide cults such as Heaven's Gate in 1997, perhaps an inspiration in the writing of this novel. All of the Creedish men are named either Adam or Tender. The first born is named Adam, and they are set to marry a woman in the cult, all of which are named Biddie, and all of the rest of the sons are named Tender, and at 17 they are asked to leave the 20,000 acre neighborhood in Nebraska where they all reside to go into the outside world to perform menial labor tasks with a percentage of their money going back to their cult. In this particular case, Tender is only a few minutes younger than Adam--they are twins, but the cult does not believe in the phenomenom.

As the novel opens he is aboard a hijacked 747, speaking into the "black box" (which is actually orange) and recording his life's history before the plane plunges into the Australian outback. He goes onto describe his life cleaning houses for ten years for employers that he never sees but only hears through a speakerphone. He talks about his daily planner, which has his entire life accounted for on an hour-by-hour basis. He talks about his suicide hotline, where he has posted stickers in phone booths throughout town, promising a supportive voice, and in which he constantly tells people to kill themselves.

One of his victims, Trevor Hollis, leads to the other main character in the novel. One day Tender is at a mausoleum, cataloging fake plastic flowers (which he uses in his employers garden because they don't look at it close enough to realize it is fake) and sees a girl he believes might be a zombie. She ends up being the sister of Trevor, there to pay her respects at his grave. She also is calling the suicide hotline and trying to have phone sex with Tender, though there is apparently a disconnect between the man she finds unattractive in person, but very hot over the phone. This does not go very well as Tender is a virgin and has been taught to despise the idea of sex through an approach utilized by the cult that I will not give away.

The other main character, the case-worker (who doesn't get a name, neither does the agent, or the make-up artist later) has been working with him for ten years--since the big event--the mass suicide. She is supposed to keep track of him so he doesn't commit suicide, which is what he has been programmed to do. She ends up being just as (probably more) mentally unstable and quirky as he is. I also will not give away what happens to her, and when consequently, the novel shifts into a separate movement.

There are three distinct movements to the novel, and just as a screenplay is often discussed as having a three-act structure, this book would also make for a great movie. Perhaps it's just a matter of time. For Palahniuk's being active little more than ten years on the literary scene and having produced as prolifically as he has, he himself may be worthy of a MacArthur. Maybe he is not pushing the boundaries of "literary fiction," but he is a very good storyteller with a style that is certainly different from everyone else. He may not be Philip Roth, and he may not win Pulitzers, but perhaps it's only a matter of time before people start recognizing him for his contributions to the "Zeitgeist" and bequeathing awards upon him. I'll go to see Choke and I'll read that too, but also Invisible Monsters, and then maybe Rant, Snuff, Lullaby, Haunted, and Diary. And by the time I get to them there will be probably be two more to add. Meanwhile I continue to wait with baited breath for the next book by Bret Easton Ellis.


Joanne said...

What a great review. Very detailed and engaging, just the way it should be. I always like reading the books before I see the movies. I really like your review expertise.


JK said...

Thank you so much! I always think my book reviews are bad, like, they could never be published in the New York Times Book Review or the Chicago Tribune Books Section. I'm sure they still can't, but your compliment provides a lot of validation. I veer more towards the Lester Bangs music-critic-personal style or Roger Ebert-film-critic style or Pitchforkmedia review liberality when it comes to books. Maybe reviews are like that too but I'm not sure. I'm just tired of all the praised heaped on Tao Lin, who really did not care to network with me on his blog, even though one of my best friends was his former roommate, totally randomly....sigh.....