Reconsidering Chuck Palahniuk

A few days ago I found a Kickstarter for a film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Lullaby. Or rather, I got a direct message from whoever runs Palahniuk’s Twitter (it’s not him) pointing it out to me, in case I wanted to contribute any money to getting the movie made.

Cover of Lullaby, with the iconic starling
Cover of Lullaby, with the iconic starling

I showed it to my husband. Palahniuk was one of our first shared literary interests when we started dating. We still have duplicate copies of several of his books on our shelves, relics of a pre-cohabiting, pre-Kindle era.

Even though we’re arguably fans, we laughed a little over some of the backer rewards for the Lullaby movie. $15 for a PDF of the shooting script is one thing. But for $500, you can have a leather-bound, signed, limited edition copy of one of one of Chuck’s books. For a little more, you can get a tattoo of the movie’s logo. For two grand, you can be in the movie.

“Didn’t they used to pay people to be in movies?” I asked. “Not the other way around?”

Making fun of the Kickstarter was not classy of me, I’ll admit. Movies are expensive. If fans are willing to put that kind of capital into getting a thing made, they should have something to show for it. I should not mock people for spending money on things that bring them joy.

But I personally am not going to fork over $20k so I can own the prop grimoire from the movie.

Palahniuk’s best-known work is still his 1996 novel Fight Club. By the time I hit puberty, the 1999 film adaptation  was on its way to cult classic status. I can’t shake the sad feeling that this, his first published novel, was also the height of Palahniuk’s fame. Fight Club and it’s rules are a part of the cultural lexicon in the way that none of his other books ever were.

When I was in high school, I got into Palahniuk because that’s what all the cool kids were reading. Maybe not the class president, captain-of-the-sports-team cool kids, but the nerdy, witty, acerbic types. These were the people who started bands and wrote poetry and stayed up to see the sunrise. They pushed boundaries and broke rules, or at least it felt that way to me. They were the ones I wanted to be around and be like.

We worshipped these books wholeheartedly. Palahniuk’s words made their way into our yearbook quotes, and we joined MySpace groups called “Chuck Palahniuk for President.” For my junior year science fair project, two friends and I researched all the anarchic chemistry proposed in Fight Club. We didn’t actually attempt to drill holes in a gun barrel or make napalm out of orange juice, but we did make soap. We used grocery store-bought lard that did not come from humans, as far as we knew, anyways.

There’s a sense now that Palahniuk was something we were supposed to give up after a while. The bizarre, gross details that pepper his books, the inevitable plot twists—it could get gimmicky, overly theatrical. Adolescent boy stuff. We were meant to grow out of loving this.

Confession time: I never actually did.

I couldn’t get through Haunted. It wasn’t just the infamous opening story “Guts;” it was the rumors of auto-cannibalism later, and my fear that something bad was going to happen to the cat in the frame story (no one tell me what happens to the cat, I don’t want to know). I stopped reading his new releases after Pygmy. I probably should have quit after Snuff. The porn industry has its problems, but I’m not sure Palahniuk was meant to tackle them. Pygmy was further out of his experience. It read like a bad episode of South Park, a poorly drawn satire that has transformed into the very thing it meant to skewer.

But everything that came before…

Lullaby, the book that is being kickstarted into a movie, is heartbreaking. It’s about a mysterious poem that’s really a spell. Saying it aloud or even just thinking it kills people. Lullaby is also about families, both biological and found. It’s about guilt and grief and how easy it is to do harm, even when all you want to do is help. There’s also a necrophiliac coroner and a real estate agent trying to sell haunted houses. Someone gets gum in their hair, or maybe it’s boogers.

Palahniuk has written some of the most memorable things about boogers I’ve ever read. The only other author who’s come close is Charles Dickens. Both the phrase “pendulous excrescence” and the nose picking in Rant will haunt me to my grave, so thanks for that, Chuck(s).

Invisible Monsters was a personal favorite, reread many times. The events that kick the story off are horrific—the main character has lost most of her jaw to a gunshot wound—but it somehow manages to evolve into a hopeful, chaotic road trip story. It asks how much we sacrifice when we obediently fill the roles others have chosen for us rather than following our own passions. “Find what you’re afraid of most and go live there,” the narrator urges.

There were others, too. Diary, with it’s creepy parody of both art school and small-town living, is my husband’s favorite. I’m least-fond of the protagonist in Survivor, but it’s absolutely worth a read for the counterpoint structure alone. I consider Choke to be the worst-of-the-best, but it’s surprisingly charming for a book about an amoral conman who’s addicted to sex.

These books got into me in a very real way and never left again. They colored the way I looked at the world. The stories are full of ordinary things transformed into fateful objects. IKEA catalogues, birth control pills, suicide hotline stickers, Easter eggs. The cap of a restaurant ketchup bottle, a letter opener, an email password. After you finish one of Palahniuk’s books, it’s like you’ll never feel the same about these things again.

Maybe this is nostalgia talking. I’ve that most people will like the music they liked at age 13 for the rest of their life. They might not listen to it on a regular basis, but when one of those songs comes on, they won’t change the radio station. Palahniuk is literary equivalent to that, at least a little bit.

If the amount of money the Kickstarter has raised is any indication, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I still believe there was something valuable in those books, though. Hidden beneath the shock value exterior was truth and beauty. Many of them have happy endings. Our younger selves might have pretended to be cynics, but it turns out we were romantics all along.