Lunar New Year Reads, #33: Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

“A shock writer”. “A weirdo”. “That Fight Club guy.” These are the kinds of things that are said not altogether praisefully about Chuck Palahniuk, but I am not sure I can really agree… or disagree.

I’m not sure I can agree with the pejorative use of a term like “shock writer” because, well, it’s pretty clear that Palahniuk values the shocking, the gut-wrenching, the revolting. It’d be one thing if he was publishing books full of snuff photography, or writing simply sadistic fantasies; in other words, it’d be one thing if he weren’t very clearly working at constructing texts of literary merit. But when you read his writing, you very quickly get the sense that he has, very pruposefully, considered his writing voice, mastered it, taken control of it on a deep level, and that for him the telling of these stories is about more than just the shock moment, or even the narrative contour toward and through shock.

Palaniuk’s Survivor is a good example of this. The book contains all kinds of shocking things: the life of a man who leaves “Call me for support” stickers all over the city he lives in, and then urges people who call him to suicide — which hardly makes him a sympathetic sort of character; he is a madman who is the sole survivor of a bizarre suicide cult, who becomes a media superstar, is implicated in murders, and ends up hijacking a plane to crash it into the Australian outback in a bizarre non-suicide attempt.

The thing is, if Palahniuk’s book were all about the shocks, then reading this above paragraph would spoil the novel for you — and I wouldn’t ever do such a thing. The reason I posted the above is that it is the narrativ thread, and some of the shocks involved are right there in the open, but this absolutely doesn’t spoil the book for you. Rather, what makes the book work is the voice of Tender Branson — the cult-survivor narrator — and the minutae that surround him as a character. What matters is the moments of thought, of reflection, the little side-passages down which we accompany his mind as, narrating his story into the doomed airplane’s Black Box Recorder, he struggles to explain what in his life led him to this desperate, insane moment, what led him to his fate, what mattered along the way, what he remembers and cannot remember.

As much as we want to trust in his belief that he will survive this crash — a belief bolstered by the words of a proven psychic — there is a level on which I, at least, as a reader, doubt that he will live. That being so, the book is, from start to finish, the last words of a single character, a character that is through-and-through tragic; he is a man who was made to suffer, and whose pain echoed so strongly that he continued to spread that suffering to others. The book is an overview of the mind and heart of a person who is not only deeply damaged, but fundamentally interesting because of it. While I haven’t read Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the (supposedly faithful) rendition of it in film also centered on a fundamentally interesting, and fundamentally damaged, character. What’s interesting about both is that their deepest values include stark rejections of specific elements in the modern world: Branson in Survivor rejects the hypersexualized modern world, he rejects the constraints of polite society that are enforced upon him when he is outed as a Creedish Cult survivor — for example, his expression of relief when his case-worker is murdered, which in polite society he cannot express for fear of being accused of the crime, but which, in character, while not particularly nice, is somewhat understandable.

Likewise, this character Branson’s penchant for shoplifting, while thoroughly illegal and not anything I’d emulate or recommend, is not simply a fetish for petty crime but seems to reflect a kind of unworldliness, a consciousness that simply is too removed from Western society to care about the standard rules of property and commerce. Likewise, Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden is a character rife with transgressions against society’s foundations (especially banking/credit systems) and society’s strictures — for example, against open fighting, or against any kind of social group that explicitly embraces the potential for violence within the human being, especially the male human.

This is why I think it’s sensible that Palahniuk labels his fiction as “transgressive fiction”, in the way some people label their writing “science fiction” or “romantic fiction”. It’s not just that his characters perform social and legal transgressions within the narrative, however; there’s something else deeply transgressive about Palahniuk’s choices of protagonists, themes, and stories (many of which he claims are derived from the real-life stories that people seem more than willing to tell him in person). In all of these bigger decisions Palahniuk makes, in the way he renders characters I’d never want to meet in real life quite sympathetic and fascinating in his novels, he transgresses against the kinds of polite literary boundaries that surround “mainstream fiction”.

One of the main implicit assumptions of the literary world today is that Aristotle hit the nail on the head in his Poetics, where it was claimed that the stories we tell one another should have two functions: to instruct, and to delight (or, as we would say nowadays, to “entertain”). It seems to me that literary mavens are most uncomfortable with fiction in which they themselves cannot see room for one, or the other. For example: “genre” fiction like SF and horror probably appear “too entertaining” to them, too distracting from the real world; if a book distracts one from the real world too much, perhaps, they probably reason, it cannot fulfill its instructive function as well as it otherwise might. Meanwhile, propagandistic works of fiction — for example those of Ayn Rand, by almost all accounts — tend to be too narrowly focused on the instructive function and fail to really entertain.

But with Palahniuk’s work, the problem is thornier than this: while his fiction does edify — it’s well-written and enjoyable to read, and entertaining to be sure — people are extremely likely to become uncomfortable at the notion that it both entertains and instructs. If indeed it does instruct, after all, the obvious question is to ask what the instruction consists of. These are novels with people urging desperate strangers to fight violently, to commit suicide; the men in these books blow up bank headquarters, set up religious media outlets, organize violent secret societies, and hijack planes on the advice of psychics. If these books instruct, the main lesson they teach is the glamour, the excitement, the danger, the interestingness and maybe even the importance of transgression.

And given the conservativism of the literary crowd, it’s likely that this kind of a lesson is exactly the sort they’re unlikely to see. People who read mainstream lit, after all, tend to be pretty comfortable in the world. They aren’t at the mercy of banks, not as wholly as the poorer folk are; they’re not as subject to the whims of small-town, hick mentalities, and their transgressions against public society’s inane rules are often shielded enough by urban life, political correctness, and class advantages that they really have nothing to revolt against. In other words, it’s one thing to be, say, gay in New York City. It’s quite another thing to be gay in Salt Lake City. It’s one thing to have a bank loan on a house, and professorial tenure and an income topay off the house, and quite another to have a mortgage on your house to pay for your wife’s leukemia treatments. In both cases, you’re subject to the power of something bigger than yourself — societal norms in the former cases, or the modern banking system in the latter pair — but I think in each case it’s obvious who is more painfully subject to those kinds of power. There’s an inverse correlation between the kind of people who enjoy Palahniuk’s books, and the extent to which they’re crushed down by these kinds of power, or at least that’s my impression. And likewise, there’s very probably a direct correlation between one’s freedom from dominating power and one’s penchant for criticizing these books as merely “shock” literature.

As for transgressive fiction, which appears to be Palahniuk’s own term for his work: while he may have made up the term, the genre is not new with him. Haruki Murakami has certainly been writing transgressive fiction for a while, and so, too, I think, have other writers. There are quite potentially roots for transgressive fiction way back in the Middle Ages, with Chaucer’s Pardoner being a prime example. There are characters within Shakespeare, too, which I think fit the bill, and we may also find within the tradition of Gothic lit forerunners to this; one book that comes to mind is Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. I’m certain some literary-historical surveys of the transgressive in fiction have been done already, though, and I’m not so interested in getting into that. Rather, I think my time would be better spent digging into the copy of Fight Club that I bought when I was last in Seoul. Anyway, if you can get your hands on Survivor, I think it a very worthy book, with one caveat: it took me only a few days to get through it. It’s a quick read, and you might therefore feel a little badly if you buy it new. As for me, it was loaned to me by my co-worker Paul, for which deed I am thankful.

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