Thursday, October 30, 2008

Haunted - Chuck Palahniuk

The front cover of Haunted contains the words "a novel" beneath the title. Let me just say: I don't think it's fair to call this book a novel. It's a book of short stories. The short stories are the most worthwhile parts of it. Really, it is a novel, but it's a very strangely formatted one. There are 24 chapters. Each chapter has three parts to it. The first part is the "novel" itself--a story about 15 or 16 people coming together in this dark, scary house for a so-called "writer's retreat" where they will spend 3 months in isolation creating their masterpiece that they never have the time for in their busy, workaday lives. The second part is a poem, about the person who is about to tell a story. And the third part is the short story itself, told by a character. These are always the highlights of the chapter.

The "novel" element occassionally shows flashes of brilliance. It is interesting to note that Palahniuk claims this book is a reaction to the "reality television" culture so prevalent over the last decade or so. The book was published in 2005. Wikipedia also highlights a couple interesting tidbits--the novel is actually about the "battle for credibility" that has resulted in things like this very blog (easy, immediate, online publishing)--that, and he listened to "Bela Lugosi's Dead" as inspiration while writing--which I find hilarious and awesome. However, more to the point, Haunted is the third novel reviewed on Flying Houses which I will compare to my first novel, further making the point that my first novel probably does deserve to be published on some level. Like A Long Way Down and Crossing California, Haunted relies on a large cast of characters that are really not all that different from one another (in their motivations, at least) trying to do, something. Not anything big and plot-oriented, just, existing, within this strange space. Further, the novel also reads like my rejected idea for a reality television show, Most Popular Writer, which I pitched to an executive at the Bravo Network who informed me that "writing is an inherently solitary act and not interesting for television viewers." I beg to differ, as Haunted, like Choke, Fight Club, Survivor, and Rant (and I may even be missing a couple) has just now recently been announced as an upcoming film with a director attached (announced a day after my review of Snuff). I do believe Haunted would make for a better HBO Miniseries (which could potentially be awesome) but we will have to see how they manage to translate this very long book into a film. At over 400 pages, it's the longest Palahniuk book.

And it's really more a collection of short stories than it is a novel. And to be fair, and not to be rude, I have to say that the previous short story collection reviewed here, Dead Boys by Richard Lange, is a far more compelling read. I have to honestly state that Haunted was my least favorite Palahniuk book yet, on the whole. Snuff may have been a trifle, but it was a trifle that I sped through in two or three days. It's taken me about a week to read Haunted, and with those two William Burroughs books at the same time, which also, were more compelling reads.

That said, there is one very famous short story here that everyone should read, that should go down as a classic along the lines of "The Killers" or "A Good Man is Hard to Find" or "Cathedral" or "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love": "Guts." Anybody who knows anything about Palahniuk would have seen that coming from a mile away. And also this statement: that it is the story Palahniuk famously reads at his appearances that famously has caused over seventy people to lose consciousness. On a personal note, I found this story absolutely fantastic, but I found the "candle wax" part the most stomach-churning, only to find out a few days later that I might require an operation known as a cystoscopy. Thankfully, I didn't, and I hope I never have to undergo that, but knowing my luck, that is just the sort of way God will plan to torture me further. MOVING ON...."Guts" is the first story in the collection and you might just want to read it out of the library one day. If you're interested by the story of the whole novel Haunted it might be worth your time. Honestly, I found it a bit exasperating at times and I am glad I am done reading it.

But there are a few more excellent stories to be found. Off the top of my head, "Swan Song," "Dog Years," "Exodus," "The Nightmare Box," "Crippled," "Hot Potting," "Evil Spirits," and "Obsolete" all work on differing levels. Aside from "Guts," "The Nightmare Box" and its antecedent stories "Poster Child" and "Cassandra" are the strongest thing in Haunted, and actually reveal the major plot-hinging element to the work as a whole. But if you only read those four, you will miss what happens to the Matchmaker, you will miss the absurdity and ridiculousness of "Dog Years" and "Exodus" and you will miss the "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow"-esque "Obsolete"--which is the final story in the collection and arguably the third-best.

This is a work that can inspire a lot of discussion and might be a good creative writing class course syllabus item. Parts of it are great--as good, or better, than anything else Palahniuk has done. But on the whole, it drags, and is content to be macabre and gross simply for its own sake at times. I will stand by my statement, that I liked Snuff better only because it was a quicker read. Haunted certainly has its moments, and it is a fine moment of experimentation, for Palahniuk has here created a new genre of short story collection/novel hybrid--the phrase "story in novels" which I previously did not understand applies here almost singularly. But those unaccustomed to Pahlaniuk will be better to start off with Fight Club or Survivor or Rant or Choke. Those novels build on tension created from page one and come to satisfying conclusions. This novel starts off with an absolute bang and spends the rest of the time trying to match its previous elan. Still, only this novel could contain a paragraph as hilarious as this:

"Even the Link knows that eating a dead man's severed penis will get him extra prime-time exposure on every late-night talk show in the world. Just to describe how it tasted. After that will be the product endorsements for barbeque sauce and ketchup. After that, his own novelty cookbook. Radio shock-jock shows. After that, more daytime game shows for the rest of his life." (359)


Dreamworld Book Reviews said...

Great review and very interesting take! I was also drawn in by "Guts" and enjoyed "The Nightmare Box", and agree that the book was truly disgusting, although entertaining. I had no idea Palahniuk read "Guts" out-loud to audiences and it made people faint! I can understand, and almost wish I was present to witness one of those readings! I finished Haunted today and wrote my own review on it at I just had to see what other bloggers were saying.

JK said...

Thank you for noting the existence of this review--the reason I blog at all.

And thank you for the comment, it gave me reason to go back and re-visit this review, because honestly, it is from a long time ago. i think i am better at writing reviews now. i would not mention so many personal details now, but they are funny.