Telling it as it is
It's easy to forget now - though Chuck Palahniuk does not - that the film adaptation of Fight Club was not a success upon release. In the weeks following its October 1999 debut the box office takings were poor and reviewers divided. "It wasn't a success at all, not at first," is the first thing Palahniuk says when, midway through a long and peripatetic conversation, his attention turns to the film. "The critics were vicious. Then it started to be withdrawn from cinemas.
"I had the producer on the telephone in tears, telling me the movie had tanked. It was a terrible time." Film buffs and Palahniuk enthusiasts know what happened next. The following year, the studio released Fight Club on the still relatively new DVD format, only to witness a year-by-year, time-lapse explosion in sales. Ten years later, and Fight Club is held as one of the defining films of the 1990s, a seminal examination of contemporary masculinity that told us something about the 20th-century male psyche before we had the words to say it ourselves. And the man behind the source code - the 1996 novel - is one of the best-known writers in the world.
Indeed, Palahniuk is among that rare breed of fiction writers about whom it is possible to use the word "famous". He's the author of work considered both shocking and subtle, so attuned to the neuroses of our age that his fans - more than 155,000 of them a month - gather at a website called The Cult. It is of note, then, that Palahniuk's 11th novel, Tell-All, concerns itself primarily with fame. It tells the story of a fading Hollywood A-lister, Kathie Kenton - a fictional blend of Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland - and her housemaid Hazie Coogan.
But this is a Palahniuk novel, and a dark undercurrent runs close to Tell-All's glamorous surface. Hazie's loyalty to her employer, we quickly realise, is something closer to an obsession, and one that's given new life when she discovers that Miss Kenton's latest suitor, Webster, is plotting to kill the ageing star and then write a memoir about their affair. Given Palahniuk's productivity, it's no surprise that the seed that became Tell-All was sown while he was working:
"The idea came while I was doing promotion for the movie Choke," he remembers. "I saw how every famous, beautiful woman seemed to travel with a pack mule, a dowdy woman who followed her 20 steps behind. "I became fascinated by the power dynamic in that relationship. There is an intimacy that is incredible, because often these famous women have no one else to confide in." To listen to Palahniuk talk about his new book is to realise his fascination with fame, and the way it is constructed. That's combined, here, with his long-standing tendency to play with the grammar of story-telling: the novel is written in the faux-revelatory style of a newspaper gossip column, and also makes explicit use of screenplay direction: "Act one, scene four opens with Katherine Kenton cradling an urn in her arms." Palahniuk explains:
"In the early days of film, directors borrowed from novelistic technique," he says. "Now, it's the other way around: fiction looks to film. So I felt like it was about time a novel acknowledged that, and used explicitly filmic language." That's a statement that might be held up as emblematic of Palahniuk's work. He is, surely, the definitive novelist of TV generation, a writer who manages to occupy that narrow sliver of ground between serious fiction and popular culture thanks to novels that address our times - our relationship with sex, violence, addiction, money - with an immediacy, and a clear-eyed stare, few other writers can manage. Indeed, Palahniuk has been called a novelist for people who don't read. It's not hard to discern a touch of literary snobbery in that phrase. What does he think of it?
"I don't know," he says, evidently nonplussed. "I think people read my work and then branch out. "If people aren't reading as much, it's because many writers aren't serving readers. There's such a time investment required to read a book. I think some fiction has lost touch with the great joy made possible by invention." Far from dulling the sensibilities of its audience, says Palahniuk, film and TV have bred a new generation of more sophisticated readers, and fiction is struggling to keep up:
"A goal of mine is to accommodate the fact that movies have created a generation far more sophisticated when it comes to consuming stories," he says. "They don't need to be led by the hand between scenes, they don't need everything explained. I prefer to just present each plot-point. Let the reader decide how to view it." It's 22 years since Chuck Palahniuk started down the path that would lead, eventually, to fame. Back then, he was a mid-20s journalism school graduate working as a diesel mechanic. Aged 26, he stumbled on a course run by self-help organisation Landmark: it was, he says, "my big epiphany moment". The course encouraged participants to face their fears: Palahniuk spent time working at a hospital for the terminally ill, and then joined a local writing group. Success was hard won: 1996's Fight Club remained little read until the film, and his first bestseller didn't come until 2001's Choke.
By then, his life had taken more than one unexpected turn. In 1999, while Fight Club was being filmed, Palahniuk's father and his girlfriend were shot dead by a jealous ex-boyfriend; the killer was later convicted, and Palahniuk requested he receive the death penalty. It's no wonder that some critics have located the vein of nihilism that runs through his work in his own troubled adult life. But Palahniuk doesn't accept the premise:
"It's become an easy label, this idea that my work is shocking or nihilistic," he says. "It's perpetuated by lazy people. "In fact, my work is romantic, even sentimental. The underlying truth is that it's always about someone struggling to attain a sense of connection, or community. I usually end with my protagonists losing some kind of defensive self, which makes way for a genuine connection with someone they love. It's about people expressing love the best way they know how. It's a broken romance, but it's still romantic."
But surely there is some disingenuousness here. What about the notorious 2005 story Guts, in which a teenage boy's intestines are sucked out by a swimming pool pump? In an essay called "The Guts Effect", Palahniuk says that 67 people have fainted during readings of the story. Hardly romantic? "There are accounts of people fainting on the subway, reading 'Guts': it has a shocking effect. But look, there has to be something more than shock factor. It's about persuading people - through charm and humour - to look at something they wouldn't usually look at."
And with this, surely, we get close to the heart of Palahniuk's imaginative project. Rewind to those early years, when he was fixing trucks and feeling his way into fiction: while the influential Lankmark course told him to face his fears, the writing group he attended was led by Tom Spanbauer, founder of a movement called "dangerous writing", in which students are encouraged to dredge the deepest recesses of their psyches and write about whatever they least want to confront. Did fiction become, for Palahniuk, a means by which he could confront himself? And why is that confrontation so important?
"If writing didn't provide a form of therapy for me, there would be little motivation to return to the notebook every day," he says. "It's incredible how personal issues can resolve themselves when I'm writing. "We're controlled by the parts of ourselves we can't acknowledge. When you write about them, you can gain back control. You may not know what issue you're dealing with until you're finished; but you still get that sense of catharsis."
The truth is, for all the sprawling anarchy, the sex, death and violence in Palahniuk's novels, he is a controlled, precise sort of man. It's there in the measured way he speaks. And it's there, too, in the books, which are at once best-sellers and his own, entirely private attempts at self-mastery. In this way, then, his work performs a kind of double duty: one for the world, and one for him. No one, reading Tell-All, for example, could ever discern the events that underlay its creation:
"With Tell-All it was pretty easy for me to know what was happening," he says. "My mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and I was making regular trips to the hospital to be with her and take care of her, and it was incredibly awful. "Tell-All was my way of dealing with having to be with my mother in a Hazie Koogan kind of way, until she died." It might be impossible to forget. But in Palahniuk's world to remember - to write - is to transcend.
Tell-All, published by Jonathan Cape, is out now.
Published: August 9, 2010 04:00 AM