Well it has taken a little over three months, but now I have read Chuck Palahniuk's entire fictional oeuvre, except for reading Fight Club for the second time. The project was worthwhile, though at times it did feel more tedious than fun. This is not the case for the final book to be reviewed here, Invisible Monsters, however, as it may be near the top of the list I plan to include at the bottom of this review, a commonplace ranking most die-hard Palahniuk fans enjoy concocting.
I do not know if I consider myself a "die-hard," but I will say that I bet few of them have published reviews of each of his novels. I will certainly take a look at Pygmy when it is released. Invisible Monsters is another one of the books that has movie rumors swirling, along with Haunted, Survivor, and Rant, following up Fight Club and Choke. Those two may have been his best two books though Rant is certainly remarkable, in my opinion at least, and Invisible Monsters is arguably the most iconic, perhaps even surpassing Fight Club in its nihilistic glory.
To be sure, Invisible Monsters and Fight Club are the most similar of Palahniuk's novels. Both feature a previously successful protagonist who decides to shake up their lives a bit. This protagonist is actually shot in the same area of the face. Both feature a guru, or alter-ego, that drives the majority of the plot forward. Both are not so much about plot as they are about character. Both contain passages like this one found in Invisible Monsters:
"It's because we're so trapped in our culture, in the being of being human on this planet with the brains we have, and same two arms and two legs everybody has. We're so trapped that any way we could imagine to escape would be just another part of the trap. Anything we want, we're trained to want." (259)
Invisible Monsters is about modeling. It is also about mutilation. It is also about confusion of sexuality and gender. But it is also about adventure. In Fight Club, the adventure may be beating the crap out of one another and in Rant the adventure may be smashing into other cars, but in Invisible Monsters, the adventure is touring elegant homes for sale and stealing drugs out of master bathrooms. That is the majority of the plot.
There is the main character, mostly nameless, finally revealed to be named Shannon ten pages before the close of the novel, often called Daisy St. Patience as a pseudonym. She is a model who experiences a jaw-shattering accident that leaves her voice mute and her face disfigured. She communicates by writing notes, or sometimes comically attempting to speak. She has a best friend named Evie Cottrell, also a model, but a slightly bigger-boned one (I believe she is a size 9 to Shannon's 6). She has a dead gay brother named Shane, who apparently contracted gonorrhea at age 16 and died of AIDS not too long after. She has a boyfriend named Manus who is a police detective and who abandons her after her face is destroyed.
While at the hospital recovering from her accident, which is the opening of the novel and probably the best one Palahniuk has done, she meets Brandy Alexander, who is nearing the end of a year long "Real Life Conditioning" for a sex change operation. Later, she meets Brandy at a hotel and they escape and begin their year or so of being on the road and stealing and selling drugs, along with a male character alternatively named Signor Alfa Romeo, Chase Manhattan, Seth Thomas, or various other clever company names. The story jumps back and forth in time constantly, and nothing much happens except for recounting various incidents in this model's life. That may sound dull but this novel certainly is not.
This strange story allows Palahniuk plenty of soapbox-preaching about the nature of modeling and advertising and consumerism and sexuality. More importantly, the story also allows him to utilize what may be his finest prose to date:
"A sexual reassignment surgery is a miracle for some people, but if you don't want one, it's the ultimate form of self-mutilation." (259)
"You know how you look at ugly hunchback girls, and they are so lucky. Nobody drags them out at night so they can't finish their doctorate thesis papers. They don't get yelled at by fashion photographers if they get infected ingrown bikini hairs. You look at burn victims and think how much time they save not looking in mirrors to check their skin for sun damage.
I wanted the everyday reassurance of being mutilated. The way a crippled deformed birth-defected disfigured girl can drive her car with the windows open and not care how the wind makes her hair look, that's the kind of freedom I was after.
I was tired of staying a lower life form just because of my looks. Trading on them. Cheating. Never getting anything real accomplished, but getting the attention and recognition anyway. Trapped in a beauty ghetto is how I felt. Stereotyped. Robbed of my motivation." (286)
In short, many readers of Palahniuk state this book as being their favorite, and it is not hard to see why. On paper, in synopsis, it does not sound like the most exciting, but once a reader passes page thirty or so, the pull of the prose will carry them to the finish quickly. It is probably the most skillfully written work in his oeuvre, even if some plot twists seem overly obvious. On the whole, a very satisfying work, perhaps not a masterpiece, but a very intriguing book that deserves a Fight Club-size audience.
Top 9 Books by Palahniuk:
9) Snuff (2008)
8) Haunted (2005)
7) Diary (2003)
6) Lullaby (2002)
5) Survivor (1998)
4) Rant (2007)
3) Fight Club (1996)
2) Invisible Monsters (1999)
1) Choke (2001)