Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Diary - Chuck Palahniuk

There are not many cataclysmic events in the world of book reviews, but when they do occur, they are shocking. In 2003, Chuck Palahniuk brought out Diary and received mostly complimentary reviews (including two from the New York Times), but one in particular stuck in the minds of journalist critics everywhere: Laura Miller's skewering of the novel on (which can be found here for those interested). Let it be said that Miller herself seems to be a bit off her rocker in how badly she wants to denounce the author and his seemingly totally undeserved success, particularly when she remarks that Waytansea Island, the setting of the majority of Diary, is an "island off the New England coast." Apparently Ms. Miller does not know where Long Beach is, as it is invoked at least a couple times in reference to being on the "mainland" where the ferry departs for the island. To be fair, however, Waytansea could double as a twisted version of Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket, but it seems much more like it is representative of Catalina, a place I have never been but at least I know it's an island off the coast of Long Beach. Anybody that doesn't know such major geographical trivia as it relates to literature (did she ever read All the King's Men, in which perhaps the most beautiful section of the novel goes down in a hotel in Long Beach, which is in, dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum, California?) should not be ripping an author to shreds. Thankfully, Palahniuk personally responded to her, writing a short letter to Salon asking her to attempt writing a book, and stating, "Until you can create something that captivates people, I'd invite you to just shut up. It's easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It's a lot more difficult to perform one."

As much as I want to point out the injustice of unfairly negative reviews, I will have to admit here that I found Diary to be the slowest Palahniuk read yet. It is debatable whether Haunted or Diary now occupies the lowest rung on my list of favorite books by Chuck. It took me almost as long to read Diary as it did Haunted, though that is a result of personal circumstances (participation in NaNoWriMo changes one's attitude towards being a real writer) though I have to say the peaks of Haunted are higher than those of Diary, and the valleys of Haunted are also lower than those of Diary. Still, they are amongst the weakest in his oeuvre that I have read thus far (Invisible Monsters and Lullaby are the only fiction works left for me to review) but that is not to say they deserve to be skewered so unfairly. Diary is a fairly interesting idea that requires the space of a novel to reach its completion, but it is one of the more exasperating works I have read by him yet.

The story concerns Misty Marie Kleinman Wilmot. The name Wilmot comes from her husband Peter Wilmot. They met in art school. As the novel opens, Peter's in a coma, and Misty's cluing the reader into the scenario. He tried to commit suicide. He's being kept alive as a vegetable. It's quite a shame that Peter doesn't wake up from this coma during the novel and that he only appears in living, breathing form in the flashbacks that Misty recounts, but sometimes fantastic devices seem a bit out of place. Peter is clearly not going to come back. But he is one of the most interesting characters in Diary and the scenes in flashback with him and Misty starting to date and beginning their life together are amongst the best in the book.

Misty starts receiving phone calls from previous people that Peter has worked for, remodeling their houses. He has scrawled mysterious messages of graffiti inside rooms that he has closed off from the homeowners. They discover them and invite Misty over to set things right. One of these homeowners is Angel Delaporte, who becomes one of Misty's few confidants and friends throughout the duration of the novel.

Misty also has a daughter, Tabbi, and a mother-in-law, Grace, who spend the majority of time with her. Things are obviously weird on Waytansea Island and it becomes gradually and gradually more clear what is happening. Diary is a bit sci-fi the way Rant is. In fact, these two novels seem cut from the same cloth, in a way. But Diary is more of a meditation on what constitutes artistic talent, or what makes a certain piece of art a masterpiece, and Rant is sort of indefinable and completely original. Comparisons to Rosemary's Baby have been brought up in connection to Diary and it is not hard to see why. While some of its elements may seem vaguely hackneyed and while the cataclysmic event that the whole story builds to may induce feelings of anti-climax, the novel does hit its mark in a few places, such as when Peter is giving Misty his philosophy on artistic inspiration:

"You told Misty all this.
You said how Michelangelo was a manic-depressive who portrayed himself as a flayed martyr in his painting. Henri Matisse gave up being a lawyer because of appendicitis. Robert Schumann only began composing after his right hand became paralyzed and ended his career as a concert pianist.
You were digging in your pocket while you said this. You were fishing something out.
You talked about Nietzsche and his tertiary syphilis. Mozart and his uremia. Paul Klee and the sceloroderma that shrank his joints and muscles to death. Frida Kahlo and the spini bifida that covered her legs with bleeding sores. Lord Byron and his clubfoot. The Bronte sisters and their tuberculosis. Mark Rothko and his suicide. Flannery O'Connor and her lupus. Inspiration needs disease, injury, madness.
'According to Thomas Mann,' Peter said, 'Great artists are great invalids.'" (65)

And later on, an extensive section where a doctor is speaking to Misty delves even deeper into this notion of pain and suffering leading to impossible human achievements. So there are a few intriguing philosophical inquiries which make this book somewhat worthwhile, and there are a few laugh out loud moments too, and one of my personal favorites occurs in Misty's repeated self-directives to take a drink:

"Anytime some well-meaning person forces you to demonstrate you have no talent and rubs your nose in the fact you're a failure at the only dream you ever had, take another drink. That's the Misty Wilmot Drinking Game." (111)

So my final verdict is that this book does not deserve the vicious skewering it received, but it may bore some people expecting the usual fare from Palahniuk, perhaps because it features a female protagonist, which is a bit different than most of his fiction. And the subject matter is not as noticeably "guy oriented"-for lack of a better term. The hilarious portrayal of sex in Choke and to some degree Haunted and Snuff, the violence of Fight Club and Rant, the megalomania and adventure of Survivor--none of these convenient appellations apply to Diary. It would have to be something like the "philosophical artistry" of Diary, but that only takes up a portion of the book which then turns into something that might make a vaguely interesting horror film, but one which would probably not be as compelling as Rosemary's Baby. That said, with the right people attached, this could make for an excellent piece of adaptation material as well.

1 comment:

Tao Lin said...

hi jk, i will be happy to mail you a copy

email your address

thank you for your interest