I'm calling this a 'book review', for simplicity's sake, instead of a rant, which is probably more appropriate.
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First, here are informal reviews I've done over at wrtitingforums.com for two of his works, Diary and the infamous Fight Club.
Diary by Chuck Palahniuk
Ah, finally got around to it - the obligatory Chuck P. read. Before anyone asks, the local library in this miniscule drop of semi-rural excrement only had two of his books, this and Haunted, and both were checked out. Haunted had a couple holds on it already, so I put a hold on Diary. Long story short, buddy returned it and I read it over the weekend. The end. Oh, right, the review.
No matter what I say, one of Chucky's fans are going to track me down and beat me with a stick, so I might as well let it all spill out. Gutslike, even, and don't tell me aren't hip on the reference.
To be fair, I should probably say what I was expecting coming in. I was well aware that Diary isn't his best work, so I didn't set my sights too high. What I really wanted was some really fucked up grit, something with edge that goes beyond simple paper cuts. He's touted as a minimalist genius, which right off the bat made me assume he's a bad writer using a stylistic label to justify his, er, lack of aesthetic talent, so I didn't expect miracles in that deptartment either. Sooooo...
Basically Diary is a journal written by Misty, a woman on a weird coked out tourist-ridden island as her husband, one of the island's native freakos, sits in a coma. Little by little, we begin to discover some pretty fucked up things, like psychotic writing in walls, rooms going missing, and some giant paranormal conspiracy. Wacky.
So what's the catch?
The catch was that the whole thing came off as an amateur take on a Stephen King novel, not a piece of gritty social commentary, or even a nihilistic romp, which was what I expected. While I wasn't blown away by Palahniuk's writing style, he definately surprised me, pleasanty. He makes really interesting connections with his descriptions, tying two seemingly unrelated things with snazzy metaphors and smilies, though on the whole his technical skills sometimes felt really undisciplined.
Another thing I was particulary ambivalent about were his semi-useless fact interjections. I've read that he does a lot of research, which is cool but at times it seemed as though he opened Encyclopedia Brittanica to a random page and tried to figure out a way to use the info as filler. At times, this tactic was brilliant, like his commentary on facial anatomy, but in other places, like his focus on graphology, the study of handwriting, he came off sounding really tedious.
As far as characterization, I'm not going to lie - I barely cared two fucks about Misty or her plight. At times she seemed multifaceted, and I'd get excited, but then...blah. I don't know why, but I had trouble really getting into her story. Maybe it was the narrative style? Kind of her using a third person description of herself during the story, the repeating things like, 'and Misty's husband did this. You did this.' - addressing her husband in a coma.
Anyway, maybe I'm being overly harsh because I expected so much and he didn't deliver. Content-wise, the book came across as an amateur horror novel. The letter at the end was cute to the point of corn, too. Sigh. Without grit, this piece is fluff.
This shouldn't come as a surprise:
Two and a half, maybe two and three quarters. Even his unique descriptions couldn't push this higher than that.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
So there are a few problems already creeping up in this review. The first, and undeniable, is the fact that I've already decided that Chuck Palahniuk is not a very good writer and that his strengths, namely his knowledge of sketchy underground things and his darkly comedic imagination, often get lost in the shuffle. For the former, while I like learning about new things, especially things that make me feel like a unibomber, too much reliance on fact-dropping and anarchistic tidbits can be nauseating; for the latter, I saw the movie first and so everything just seemed so...done by the time I got through the book. Keeping this in mind, let's see if Chuck could overcome the eightball...
Like a support group for men, Fight Club starts as semi-senseless violence, a spiritual way to get in touch with the masculine beast within that society has castrated. Watch as our loving narrator transcends the subject position of the social eunuch, with the help of the charismatic soap-making Tyler Durden, who takes him in when his house (and all the Ikea-special-order furniture) suddenly explodes.
For those who don't know the story, I'll keep it short and sweet. Tyler and the narrator become cultural terrorists, for lack of a better term, committing acts of vandalism that are at first juvenile but soon scream out of control. When Fight Club catches on and starts attracting more and more disillusioned men, our trusty narrator and Tyler begin a cult-like revolutionary movement, Project Mayhem, whose sole purpose seems to be reducing the world to utter anarchy in hopes of freeing its enslaved citizens. Toss into the mix Marla, a chain smoking almost-basketcase, and an army of 'space monkeys' dedicated to the annihilation of social order, and you have the makings of some darkly comedic satire.
So, do I think that Chuck pulled it off? Yes and no. Even though I found that his 'minimalist' writing style made me gag (and I love that he's adored so much that people have decided to justify his spastic and, dare I say poor writing style by calling it minimalist), the ideas and the storyline were so unique, right up my alley, that I'm willing to let it slide. When I think of minimalist writing, I think of George Orwell, someone who can still churn out magnificent sentences without being superfluous. Chuck's writing has no rhythm, it's jerky stop and go the whole way through. And the way he kept milking the same rhetorical devices, like constantly returning to the Fight Club rulebook or babbling on about facts that enlighten at first glance but then become tedious after the same tactic is recycled in every chapter. Yes, Chuck, we know you have access to the internet, but while you may impress the kids with your knowledge of the Anarchist's Cookbook, from a writing standpoint such knowledge can't keep your story afloat on its own.
And there it is. With all my whining about his writing and blah, I still think he does it in the end. There's something here that makes me turn to goo inside. Maybe I'm just being overly critical because so many others have already deified him. I mean, the shit's good brain food and I'm not going to embarrass myself by saying I could do better, but stylistically I find his stuff a notch lower than most of the authors I've read. And you know what? It's my right as a reader to say that, so I'm fucking saying it.
So now I'm going to pass my final judgment. Did I have a good time reading it? Yes. Did the story appeal to me? Yes. Could the writing have been better? Yes. Did it *really* detract from my reading? Only somewhat.
I'm giving Fight Club a 7/10, meaning I had fun with it but it fell short of my possibly lofty expectations. Well, maybe it's closer to 6.5, but it's the type of book I'd give the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway, those are pretty self-explanatory, but for fun I'll just sum up the things that bother me about his fiction.
1) Research: Most of his novels are thinly veiled research pursuits disguised as actual stories. While I enjoy learning from the novels I read, I don't like being bombarded by data that does little to strengthen the characters or the story. Take Diary, for example. Sure, it's interesting to learn about the kinds of wacky superstitions carpenters use to, and often do, still have. It's also interesting to know from what herbs and organic matter certain kinds of paint are made. Or in Fight Club. It's interesting having a paraphrased version of the Anarchist's Cookbook, but really, Chuck, I'm not reading your novels to learn about how to blow shit up - otherwise I'd go and do the research itself. More than one person I've hit up on the situation have said that it seems like all of his novels are just rough notes for that real piece of prose - crib notes or something. Seems to fit the bill to me.
2) Choruses: I think this might piss me off more than his habitual research regurgitation. Nothing is more annoying than the useless reptition of certain words or phrases, especially in a work (like all of Chuck's) that rely heavily on short, terse paragraphs. How many times do I have to read about the airports Jack visits under his sleepless binges? You know, I'm pretty sure you're readership can grasp the idea that he's going from place to place and that they are all blurred and the same without you constantly referncing them. This in some ways ties to the aforementioned 'research' point. Now in small dosages, this chorus thing can and is effective, especially in chapter 6 of Fight Club, where the rules of Fight Club are beaten home. It's a great effect. Then he does the same fucking thing over and over and over and over and over, milking the same device until it becomes absolutely useless.
3) 'Minimalism: Okay, this might just be the straw that broke the camel's back. Who the fuck decided to bestow this charming title on Chuck's writing style? To me, I read such stylistic labels as COPOUT. There are exceptions. Orwell, or even Chuck's literary idol, Amy Hempel, both used sparse sentences beautifully to convey something deeper. Chuck's jerky, stop and go prose makes me want to gag. No attention paid to rhythm or pace, and his use of tense, especially in Fight Club, is ambiguous. Nothing there to digest.
Okay, so that's the size of my problems with his writing. As an aside, there's quite a bit that I enjoy about Palahniuk's work.
- Really great, dark imagination.
- He touches on a lot of issues in fun new ways, making sensationalism a genre of its own.
- As much as critics dislike shock fiction, I think there's a bit more depth to Chuck's work than a lot of people give him credit for.
- His works are easy reads and appeal to a masculine audience, whose interest in literature is kind of waning.
Some writers who I think are more worth my time:
Bret Easton Ellis: Nihilism your thing? Senseless violence with a poignant touch: Try American Psycho, Less than Zero, or Lunar Park.
Amy Hempel: Want REALLY minimalist writing from a writer Chuck admires? Try At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom.
Douglas Coupland: Interested in seeing the forerunner of the Gen X movement? Try Generation X, Hey Nostradamus!
Irvine Welsh: Where the underground world of narcotic despair floats to the surface. Try Trainspotting, Porno, The Acid House.
Kurt Vonnegut: Another writer I might consider minamist, with a satirical twist. Try Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions.
Hunter S.Thompson: Drug-induced insanity. Try Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary.
I hope I wasn't too vicious, but I call it how I see it.
Comments encouraged! :)
"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen... there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."
From his Last Will & Testament, Marquis de Sade