Urban mythologist

  • 19 April 2006
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Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk wants to hear about your darkest, most disgusting, most humiliating secret – so he can put it in his next novel. The cult novelist talks to William Hederman


Chuck Palahniuk has lots of stories. "Did I tell you my polaroid story already?" he asks. "No? Well, I was doing a book-signing tour last year when a guy walks up to the book-signing table in this big bookstore and starts throwing down in front of me polaroid photos of naked dead people lying in dirty, white, painted plywood boxes. He said it was his art project. It turned out he worked in a porno arcade and these were all the people who had died in the movie booth: either old guys who died while jacking off or sex workers who died of drug overdoses. Before calling the paramedics he would photograph them. They'd all died with their clothes around their feet. The photos were really shocking."

Shock is not a reaction you expect from Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced "Paula-Nick"). Since his 1996 debut novel, Fight Club, a funny, anarchic rant about alienation from consumerist society, the American author has churned out a relentless succession of vile, violent and taboo-breaking novels. His public readings are notorious for the number of people who have passed out. He even throws fake severed limbs into the audience.

He tells the "polaroid story" as an illustrative example of the means by which he gathers material: people just walk up and give it to him (or they email or post it to him). So don't be surprised if that macabre morsel of American life pops up in his next gruesome novel. The 44-year-old author freely admits that "almost all" of the content of his novels is "fictionalisation of something someone has told me. People come up and ask me if they can tell me things they've never told anybody. Often they have to get fantastically drunk before they can tell me."

David Fincher's faithful movie adaptation of Fight Club – starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in a story about an underground brawling fraternity created as an escape from the spiritual destitution of capitalist society – brought a cult following for the author, including many fans who don't otherwise read books. The movie, with which the author declares himself "very happy", was released in 1999 and in the following five years, he produced a further five novels. "The more I present people's stories and the more I demonstrate that I won't judge people, the more they can risk telling me and the better my own stories become."

He now has one of the biggest online fan-bases of any author, centered around a website called The Cult (www.chuckpalahniuk.net), although he says he reads "none" of the vast amount of material devoted to him there and elsewhere on the web. "There's so much more in the world that's interesting and fascinating than for me to Google my own name."

He also pays no attention to critics and does not regard himself as an artist. "I consider myself more like a magpie," he says. "A little animal that collects things and squirrels them away and makes something out of them."

Sounds more like journalism than art. "Exactly! You could even say it's more like quilting: all I do is quilt together patterns of true stories. They tend to be true stories that document the same impulse or the same human behaviour and I put them all together in a single narrative."

In fact, Chuck trained and worked as a journalist before writing fiction, and "loved it". It was relaying a news story that gave him the initial kick on the road to being a writer. When he was 11 he came home from school for lunch and his mother was watching a TV newsflash reporting that vice-president Spiro Agnew had resigned over Watergate. He had no idea who Spiro Agnew was, but he "ran back to school and told all the teachers. Everyone was so shocked and amazed and upset. I had no idea what I was telling them but I knew it was getting a really good response, so I attached to being the messenger."

Taking pleasure in provoking strong reactions has evidently stayed with him. His latest book, Haunted, contains a story called 'Guts' which has been wreaking havoc among public audiences. The story concerns a young man who has an accident with a swimming pool circulation pump while seeking new ways to heighten his masturbatory experience. So just how many people have passed out at readings of 'Guts'? "More than 70," he boasts.

"It's great. There's a lot of laughter after people faint. Also, the readings tend to be so crowded that people kind of resent each other, but after someone faints, everybody gets really caring and they go from hating each other to really caring for these one or two or three people who have fainted. It bonds people in a really sweet way." He says he might or might not choose 'Guts' when he gives a reading from Haunted at the Cúirt Literary Festival in Galway later this month.

However, Palahniuk insists he doesn't set out to shock. "I don't see it as shocking. I see it as just the depiction of an aspect of human experience that no other form of mass media can risk depicting. Movies, TV, music cannot tell these stories. Only books have the ongoing consent of the consumer. The consumer has to make an effort to keep turning the pages, reading the words. So that's a strength I want to play to."

Palahniuk's works have been described as "masterclasses in redemption through chaos or self-respect through the embracing of what you most fear". A browsing of blogs, chatrooms and other cyber-spaces devoted to him suggests that this man's work has impacted heavily on many readers. The words "changed my life" appear a lot. One imagines that people come to him seeking guidance. "Yes, they do a little bit, but what I always fall back on is ... to give people licence to do whatever they want to do... So many of my stories involve the protagonist being humiliated and having their ego destroyed ... but surviving that.

"I'm trying to give people permission to not look good long enough to do the thing that they want to do... Nobody says when I grow up I want to work on the assembly line until I retire, but that's where we end up anyway, unless we give ourselves permission to do the things we really would like to do. We perceive that involving so much risk and possible failure, so much humiliation... But they're just part of the process of getting to the thing that you want."

Finally, what of the political ideas behind Fight Club? There is a strong anti-capitalist message in the book and movie: resist corporate-driven materialism, resist the authority of the employer, take control of your own life; the protagonists seek self-fulfillment and liberation through an attack on corporate America.

But Palahniuk insists he is not political. He does not even view the message in Fight Club as "politics". "I see it as much more personal and individual than societal or political... I see that as a distraction. The idea was that people would be given tasks that would build their own sense of what they were capable of accomplishing in the world.

"The task itself was about building the individual, it wasn't about tearing down any existing institutions, because individuals create institutions, it was about empowering a generation of people to build the next generation of institutions."

Of Project Mayhem, the underground network of men in Fight Club, he says, "the group itself is not the end. The group is supposed to break down and leave behind it the residue of empowered individuals."

He never gets involved in political campaigns, "because in a way I think that taking a very overt political stand is – in a Michel Foucault way – keeping the status quo in place. I'd much rather be focused on creating a vision that isn't a reaction to a status quo.

"It's funny, we have this tendency to externalise all these things. When I sit down to write a book, I am writing about myself, I'm trying to validate my life. And yet no matter how personal it is to me ... people will always see it as a reflection of society, which is a little frustrating."

So, if you manage to get into one of Chuck's readings, don't ask him about politics. But you could tell him about your darkest, most disgusting, most humiliating experience. If you haven't already passed out, that is.

? More: Chuck Palahniuk will be reading from his latest work, Haunted, at the Cúirt Literary Festival on 29 April at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway. Tel: 091 569777 or www.ticketlord.com