Chuck Palahniuk


"Haunted"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer SEP 5, 2005)

She said, "I was a victim of myself."

Comparisons between this book and The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron are fair ones, for, like those books, there is a framing story: A group of writers have answered a want ad -- for three months they would live in utter isolation, all they had to do was produce the work they’d been putting off, the writing they all swore they’d be able to finish if only the world wasn’t keeping them from it. They weren’t allowed to tell anyone where they were going, they just packed one suitcase and left. Their heads are filled with thoughts of paradise -- warm beaches, perhaps, or thick pine forests surrounding a hunting lodge. What they get is an abandoned old theater. Whittier, the man who placed the want ad, locks them inside, promising to let them out when they have completed their masterpieces.

We never know their names so much as we know who they are, thanks to the labels they give each other in lieu of real names. Comrade Snarky, Duke of Vandals, Chef Assassin, Sister Vigilante, Director Denial...all names that hint at the true nature of the person who bears them. The only real names we know are of Mr. Whittier, who arranged for the whole event, and Mrs. Clark, a sad, tragic woman who is his hired help and therefore considered just as evil as he for keeping them locked up, but who may be the greatest victim of all.

Each person tells a story. We learn how they earned their name, and the real reason they are here. A poem about the person precedes each story and prepares us a bit for what we are about to read. In between the stories we see how the environment of the theater effects each person, the lengths that people, willing to sacrifice everything for the one chance, the one shot at fame (without having to work for it or having the right to earn it through talent) are willing to go to. They pour suffering upon themselves in ridiculous ways then pretend to be innocent, making Whittier and Clark into the villains so that no matter what their lives were like outside, they are now painted “the virgin white of victim.” Sometimes you think that the people have gone too far, impossibly far, that no one could possibly do this or that, but it still feels possible, particularly so when you read the personal stories...stories that run the gamut between sad and pathetic to cruel and murderous.

One can say this book is about creating art at any cost, but I fight this because while they do pay a high price for their stories, they do not actually sit down and work on their writing, they are all far too wrapped up in becoming the center of their own private drama, too worried about how their story will be told, for they are all convinced once they escape the “evil” clutches of Mrs. Clark and Mr. Whittier they will be surrounded by people wanting to pour money over them for the rights to their stories for movies and books. They are certain that everyone will want to know their version of events, and so they must look like they have suffered. It is a satire about reality TV and our preoccupation with having our own stories...no matter how mundane...told. Shows like fear factor are not far off from doing the same disgusting things these men and women did in order to win their fame. But most of all, it is a satire about human nature. About our need to be seen, to be pitied, to be acclaimed for our suffering. And, most of all, to be paid for it.

Palanuick creates some unforgettable images here. He’s known for writing very hard edged, gritty, emotionally wringing stuff...and this novel is his harshest yet. Fascinating, if often uncomfortable, reading.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 338 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Haunted at MostlyFiction.com

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"Diary"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer SEP 08, 2003)

"Set foot on the island and you will die..." the words said. "...run as fast as you can from this place. They will kill all of God's children if it means saving there own..."

In where his kitchen should be, it says "...all of you butchered..."

The man in Ocean Park says, "You'd better come see what I found." His voice on the answering machine says, "The handwriting alone is worth the trip."

Misty Marie Wilmont never visited the island before her soon to be husband took her there, but she knew it, all the same. She knew its every house, from the plumbing behind the floor boards to the number of shingles on the roof. She knew it, and she drew it, pouring her immense talent into pictures of a place she thought existed only in the dreams of a lonely trailer trash kid. When Peter takes her there, she thinks it a fairy tale come true, and everything will be beautiful. Of course, she is wrong...and it's just getting worse. Her husband is in a coma, a failed suicide attempt. Her house is no longer her own, the rents going to pay the hospital bills. Her daughter is a stranger. She no longer even thinks of painting, she never has the time. Drinking a little too much (but she never seems drunk) just to get through her rotten days, she spends her time as "The Queen of Slaves," running the staff of the island's only hotel. The island itself is suffering, Read excerptdespite the fact that it's become the newest mecca for the rich. And everywhere she looks, she finds small messages, written by the island's only two famous artists, both long dead. "We are their bait and their trap," one says, "If you've found this, you can still save yourself," another says, and a last one, "Do not paint them their pictures." Which leads to a question...why is Misty so important to these people? Why is everyone so intent that she take up her art again?

The are other messages, from her husband. He was a carpenter, hired to do small handyman jobs on several of the island's rental properties. Now that the rich residents have come back to their homes to enjoy the summer, they have discovered that a room is missing in their home...sometimes as small as a spare linen closet, sometimes a whole kitchen. When they break the drywall down, they find messages scrawled over the walls, the rantings of a mad man. The things he say about her are shattering, as well as the rants about how Waytansea island and its residents are going to butcher them all.

And so she's writing this coma journal for her husband, in case he ever wakes up...the title Diary is literal. Misty tells us-- Peter -- everything, going back into time for short moments to tell us about Peter, coming back to tell us about her life. It is filled with moments of incredible anger, such as when she visits her husband at the hospital. She pulls out a piece of costume jewelry, a broach that he gave her. As she stabs him with it, she says to us, to him:

"Can you feel this?

You dear sweet stupid liar. Your Tabbi sends her daddy hugs and kisses. She turns thirteen in two weeks. A teenager.

Today's weather is partly cloudy with occasional fits of rage.

In case you don't remember, Misty brought you lambskin boots to keep your feet warm. You wear tight orthopedic stockings to force the blood back up into your heart. She's saving your teeth as they fall out.

Just for the record, she still loves you. She wouldn't bother torturing you if she didn't."

And there are moments of terrible sad sweetness, such as when they're packing up their things to leave the house she spent most of her marriage in. Renters are coming any moment, and she's looking at the door, where Peter's family has marked all the different heights of the children and the date.

"Then, when she's alone again, Mrs. Misty Marie Wilmont, when no one's there to see, your wife goes up on her tiptoes and stretches her lips toward the back of the door. Her fingers spread against the years and ancestors. The box of dead paints at her feet, she kisses the dirty place under your name where she remembers your lips would be."

Palahniuk plays with the nature of creativity here...the visceral nature of it, how suffering seems to be the catalyst for great art. He solidifies the metaphor, in such scenes as when we discover that Peter has pinned the broach he's about to give Misty through his sweater and nipple, and in later, darker events when the town finally gets Misty to pick up her brush again. We discuss the nature of artistic value...Misty's paintings would probably be much like Thomas Kincaid's idealistic flowery cottage paintings. She often thinks of this, how much Peter loved these paintings, while everyone around her is doing statement art, such as a fellow student who is filling a teddy bear with dog dung...she compares her own sorry state to the state that she thinks these real artists must be living in. Palahniuk seems to challenge us, to define what art truly is...is it the stuff that comes from the soul, or the stuff that will play to the masses? Is it worth anything if we don't suffer for it?

Another thing that I really enjoyed that he played off of is, oddly enough, a certain fairy tale myth. (If I seem vague, I'm trying to leave spoilers out here...sorry, reader.) There is a part where Peter seems to have been destined for Misty, and he, well to do, living in a beautiful house in the place that she dreamed of so often, sweeps her off to this island, promising her that she will be the best painter that ever lived and that all will be happily ever after. We all love this myth, or at least I with my over romantic imagination do. But it shatters...Palahniuk turns it inside out...the handsome prince doesn't really seem to love her, and leaves poor Misty...who is not as stupid as she might want you to believe...in a terrible situation.

I couldn't put this story down, because it digs it's claws into your heart and mind on so many different levels. The prose is hypnotic, he repeats certain phrases over again, such as in the example above....for the record, and the weather forecast is cleverly employed to underline the feelings and events of the story, and when she says that Peter did something, then breaks the narrative to say "You did it." When she turns to jab the prose, her words, directly at us with the "You," it both reminds us of Peter, a character in the background who is, nevertheless, second in importance only to Misty, and echoes with all the other times she has done this. These repetitions not only give the prose a hypnotic feel, but also bring up thousands of subtle nuances. We also become attached to Misty, her bare, stripped down honesty is incredibly compelling. You feel extremely sad for her, because we all feel trapped the way she does...we all have these creative desires that we can't always accomplish, and when we do, we are well aware of the sacrifices we go through to do it. I also feel terrible for her because, I don't know how you will feel, or have felt, but I sincerely wished for some point where we find out that Peter loved her as much as she loves him...but there is something hanging back there in the context, something that shakes its head sadly and tells us this is not to be.

And of course, the mystery is very involving...why is everyone so determined that she paint, what are the meanings behind these messages, left by women so many years ago, but that seem to speak to her? As everything comes together, it just clicks perfectly.

I guess I don't have to say that I recommend this book...if you've gotten this far (I think this may be my longest review, ever) then you know I do and why...but I especially think this will resonate with anyone with a creative drive...writers, artists...because there is something about this book that really hit me in that aspect of myself. The opening cover pages of this books sums it up nicely, "Where Do You Get Your Inspiration?"

  • Amazon readers rating: from 221 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Diary at MostlyFiction.com

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"Lullaby"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer NOV 12, 2002)

"Imagine a plague you catch through your ears."

Carl Streator didn't know that when he read the simple, eight line poem to his wife and child that they would die, quietly, peacefully, as easy as drifting off to sleep. Neither did Helen Hoover Boyle, who also read this poem, an African culling spell bound in a simple anthology of world poetry to her baby son. All around the world people are picking up the lullaby and reading it to their babies. A few moments later, maybe even the next morning the baby is discovered, and labeled a crib death.

Read excerptCarl is assigned to do a newspaper piece on infant deaths, and everywhere he goes, the book, Poems and Rhymes from around the World sits on shelves and tables, an unlikely time bomb. And every chance he gets he diffuses it, rips out page 27 and destroys it. Unfortunately by now, Carl doesn't need to read it to recite the eight simple lines. He's accidentally memorized it, and the temptation to use it is becoming too much. His anger, built up at himself, built up at the world makes him a powerful conduit for the poem. Sometimes he doesn't have to even say the words aloud, just direct them at a person, even as far away as a particularly nasty radio personality and then...silence. He discovers that Helen Hoover Boyle herself knows the poem, and decides that, since she is the only other person who knows the secret power of the words, that she can become his ally. He wants to track down every volume of the poem and destroy it; she wants to find the originating volume...the grimoire from which the editor of the anthology foolishly pulled the poem. She is not alone. Mona, her secretary and Mona's boyfriend Oyster believe that the power of the grimoire can help them change the world and better it. Helen wants to undo the poem's power and see her son alive once more.

A plague you can catch through your ears...the idea sends shivers down my spine. Turning on the radio, answering the door...a million everyday things suddenly becomes as dangerous as crossing a minefield. It would change the world, and in that Carl Streator is right. His problems with controlling his need to use the poem, his tiredness with living in a world filled with noise make some very pointed comments about our own lives. The refrain used throughout the book, of "noise-oholics" and "quiet-ophobics," and his points about both how neighbors seem to duel with the noise of their TV and music, how the self inflicted noise lobotomizes people, keeping them from thinking too deeply make you understand all too keenly the temptation to use the poem. Even I, myself can imagine the temptation of it. At first, I wouldn't say it, I would try and forget it, telling myself that I don't have the right to choose whether someone lives or dies. I would try and be worthy of the secret. Then it would grow in my thoughts...perhaps I would convince myself that to use the poem for "good" would be O.K. I would visit inmates on death row, risk my life to whisper the poem in the ears of rapists and terrorists. But how long would I hold out, being "good," being, "worthy?" How long before I leaned forward and said the poem harshly under my breath to the man who just dumped me? How long until I scream it aloud in a bank, then pick my fill of the drawers?

These are not the only points he makes. He also says some very interesting things about activism, and about our reasons for wanting to "change the world."

What sets the feel of this book out of the ordinary is the people in it. They are incredibly flawed. We've already mentioned Carl's problems, and he is the book's everyman, the point between the extremes of his fellow travelers. Helen specializes in distressed houses. This means she'll sell a house, knowing that it's haunted. When the new owners can't stand the blood running down the walls, the phantom face in the bathtub water and are eager to sell, she agrees to a secret deal with them, thereby making herself a pretty penny. Mona is a Pagan who believes that she can save the world...she is gentle in some ways, wanting to fly and end cruelty to animals. Oyster fills the air with his contempt; constantly preaching about the vile ways man produces food. Unlike Mona, he doesn't really care about the environment. His hatred for mankind and his desire for power are what fuel him.

I found the book uncomfortable at times, but a constantly fascinating read. The things he says about us and about our culture rang very true to me. In many ways, it is a road trip of the strange, but the oddest things we discover are inside our own hearts.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 229 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Lullaby at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Chuck PalahniukChuck Palahniuk (pronounced paul-ah-nik) is an Oregon based writer who caught literary recognition with the publication of his novel Fight Club back in 1996. In fact, he almost didn't start writing at all when his first novel Invisible Monsters got rejected due to its content. Chuck's anger over this prompted him to write Fight Club as a big "F--- You!" to the publishers (rather than something more marketable). But Instead of being offended, they published it. As it turns out, a number of editors personally liked Invisible Monsters when they first read it but were to timid to admit it. After the exceptional David Fincher movie, which made the term "Fight Club" part of the vernacular, Palahniuk was able to quit his day job and begin writing full time.

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