In Chuck we trust

By Raven Nightshado
May 27, 2004

Part One: The man from nowhere

The story is the same at each gas station where we stop to ask for information.

“Chuck who?”

“Palahniuk. He’s a writer; he grew up around here.”

“Around here? What’d he write?”

“ ‘Fight Club.’ ”

“Cool! I love that movie.”

“Yeah, well he wrote the book.”

The guy behind the counter, a shaved-head, goateed, muscular fellow of 35 looks incredulously back at us, the “city folk,” as if daring us to prove that someone, somewhere still prints books.

On the windswept bluffs of eastern Washington, at the place where the Snake River meets the Columbia, lies the town of Burbank. Epithets such as “charming” or “quaint” cannot be applied to this place. It is, at best, a bleak reminder that much of the United States is still a rural good-ol’-boy-entrenched backwater.

There are two Burbanks, really. Burbank heights is a new neighborhood, new money being poured into quickly constructed executive homes on the bluff overlooking the McNary Wildlife Refuge. Old Burbank is a one-mile square trailer park dotted with chicken coops — merely a Frisbee’s throw from the train tracks. Palahniuk, who grew up in Old Burbank, has called it “scorpion country.”

The two families that united to form Chuck, the Palahniuks and the Tallents, have roots in Burbank. Chuck’s parents, Fred Palahniuk and Carol Tallent, both attended and graduated from Burbank High School. They married, produced two sons and two daughters, and divorced when Chuck was 14.

According to “Fugitives and Refugees,” his insider travel book about Portland, Ore., Chuck moved to the city in which he still lives “... six days after graduating high school.” He claims that his roommates “... work in restaurants, and our closet space is filled with boxes of stolen food.” This thing, stealing food, is a trick Palahniuk learned from his father. Fred Palahniuk used to wake his children in the night to raid train wrecks for salvage. The strange events of Palahniuk’s life seem to insinuate themselves into his writing with dreadful alacrity. He recounts the train wreck salvage in “Invisible Monsters,” his third novel. And anyone who has ever been to Burbank, Wash., cut off from “civilization” by the two rivers, with its two sides of town, rich and poor, would have to admit that it bears a striking resemblance to Waytansea Island, the fictional setting of Palahniuk’s 2003 novel, “Diary.”

Part Two: Art imitates life imitates art

Palahniuk graduated with a degree in Journalism from the University of Oregon but like many writers was daunted with the task of making a living by writing. His rural upbringing had exposed him to mechanics as a matter of course, and he took a job at Freightliner — first as a mechanic and later writing technical manuals. In his heart, he nurtured the idea of writing fiction. To pursue this end, he enrolled in one of Tom Spanbauer’s (author of “The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon,” 1991) “Dangerous Writing” workshops in 1995. According to Palahniuk, Spanbauer sat him down and told him that his writing was too good to be left as a hobby. Inspired by “minimalism,” the style Spanbauer was teaching, Palahniuk produced “Invisible Monsters,” a book he was immensely pleased with at the time. Editors, however, were horrified.

When he submitted “Invisible Monsters” to a dozen publishers, Palahniuk was told that it was too strange, too bizarre, too shocking. In short — as fans can now attest — it was too “Chuck.” For these bizarre twistings of life as we know it, these “surrealities,” have become the hallmark of Palahniuk’s work.

“Invisible Monsters” is the story of Shannon McFarland, a former fashion model who has been turned into a “monster” by a freeway shooting that left her without a jaw. She travels around the country stealing drugs from rich people’s houses with her companions, The Princess Brandy Alexander and a man Brandy keeps renaming (formerly Alfa Romeo, formerly Chase Manhattan.) Shannon writes the book’s key message on a postcard she flings from the Space Needle in Seattle: “When you don’t know who to hate, you hate yourself.” The book is a wild trip through the psyche of a woman who hates herself so much that she makes herself invisible by being so ugly that no one dares to look at her.

Palahniuk was, of course, less than pleased with the rejection of his manuscript. He began working in earnest on his next novel, which bore the working title “Manifesto.” He has said that he wrote the book as “a big ‘fuck you’ ” to everyone who thought “Invisible Monsters” went too far. This book, he planned, would go so far no one would ever publish any of his work. “We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression,” Palahniuk has said. “... We have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture.”

The novel known then as “Manifesto” began on a fateful day when Palahniuk had just gotten home from camping on the Pacific Crest. He had gotten into a fight with other campers over the volume of their music at 2 a.m. When he arrived home, a friend taught him how to make soap, and the same day, his sister Shawn called from Canada and told him how the Canadian government was having a problem disposing of all the bio-waste from liposuction clinics.

“Fight Club” was born.

So Palahniuk submitted this second, harder, grittier, dirtier, more shocking novel (e.g. the line “I want to have your abortion” was so controversial that the studio insisted it be changed in the film version. Director David Fincher, in a stroke of genius, changed it to “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” Studio execs then questioned if they shouldn’t have left well enough alone.) Much to Palahniuk’s surprise, editors bit onto the Tyler Durden craze and published “Fight Club” in 1996.

With the success of “Fight Club,” Palahniuk felt free to explore whichever edgy topics piqued his interest. His second published novel, 1999’s “Survivor,” detailed the last hours of the only surviving member of a strange cult as he crashes a 747. The novel’s protagonist, Tender Branson, is doing this so he can record a message on the plane’s black box. According to Palahniuk, the book’s theme is about the system of education in America because “... kids are sort of taught or trained to be the best possible cogs in some big corporate machine.”

The dawn of the new millennium signaled an upswing in the frenetic pace of his work. 2001 brought “Choke,” about a man who chokes on purpose in order to bilk “Good Samaritans” out of cash and other assistance. 2002 brought “Lullaby,” the story of a man who accidentally kills his wife and child with a magic African “culling song.” And in 2003, Palahniuk gave us “Diary,” the story of a woman whose comatose husband only married her so that his family could sell her art when she was dead.

Clearly, dark themes — undermining society’s standards, the struggle for individuality no matter whom you have to kill to achieve it, the exaltation of the anti-hero — run throughout Palahniuk’s work.

In 1999, the year Palahniuk published a reworked version of “Invisible Monsters” and the film version of “Fight Club” was released, Palahniuk’s father, Fred, and his new girlfriend, Donna Fontaine, were murdered by Fontaine’s ex-husband. Chuck Palahniuk himself could not have scripted a more bizarre set of circumstances than those that led Dale Shackelford to stalk Fontaine, shoot her and Fred Palahniuk and then burn their bodies. But ironically, it was not the first time Fred Palahniuk’s life had been touched by murder.

When he was 3 years old, Fred Palahniuk’s father shot his wife and then himself after hunting all day for Fred. According to Chuck Palahniuk, his father’s earliest memory was “… hiding under the bed, seeing his father’s logging boots walking by and the muzzle of the gun he was carrying.” Surely, tales of the event, as well as the circumstances of his upbringing, led Palahniuk to seek darker themes as habitually as a drug addict seeks a fix. The familiar, no matter how strange, is home.

Part Three: Tyler’s kiss

Palahniuk’s star has risen to become one of the most well-known and well-read of the minimalist authors. Comparisons to other contemporary authors, such as Bret Easton Ellis (“American Psycho”), Amy Hempel (“Reasons to Live: Stories”) and his mentor, Tom Spanbauer, are sketchy at best. No author in or out of the minimalist genre has come from nowhere to generate the kind of instant impact on a generation of readers that Palahniuk’s work has done. Even Ellis, whose first novel, “Less Than Zero,” received immediate praise from fans and critics, has not achieved the kind of sustained fervor that Palahniuk’s work has.

The impact of this popularity is found in many places, but none as prominent or memorable as on Palahniuk’s official website, Named “The Cult,” this fan-run, author-sponsored nutfest sports nearly 9,000 official members (myself included) and Tyler-only-knows how many unofficial “lurkers” who rely on the site for info but don’t participate directly.

The site is comprehensive — from biographical info on the author to an author’s book club, in which each month a book is selected because it has some connection to Palahniuk, whether it be by his mentioning it in his work or because it influenced his writing directly.

Although many fans enjoy and appreciate the themes of each of his books, none are as widely applied to fans’ own lives as those of “Fight Club’s” (insane) anti-hero, Tyler Durden. In Portland, Ore., “In Tyler We Trust” has had the same impact in street art that “Frodo Lives” had in the ’60s when it started appearing in New York subways. The merchandising crew for the “Fight Club” film went so far as to make wax impressions of Brad Pitt’s lips so that cast and crew could wear lip-shaped “Tyler’s Kiss” scars to the premiere.

So impacting is Tyler Durden’s manifesto that Cult members engage in “Project Mayhem”-style “arts and crafts projects.” This year, several members put together some 2,000 posts on a single topic, called “The Emperor Thread,” into a hand-bound book, clad in red leather, which they presented to Palahniuk as this year’s birthday present.

Other Palahniuk-related or -inspired projects share a similar sense of fringe chic. A recent documentary of Palahniuk’s life, “Postcards from the Future” had its “hometown” (Portland, Ore.) debut at the Clinton Street Theater — the same theater that has made a substantial portion of its income from showing the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” every Saturday since 1975.

Then there is the Portland Cacophony Society, of which Palahniuk is a long-standing member, a kind of anarchist club whose members congregate and participate in such free-spirited revels as the “Drunk Santa Parade.”

In the spirit of passing on the good will that came to him through Tom Spanbauer, Palahniuk now runs his own writers workshop — online and free. Each month, Palahniuk posts a short work of his own, what he calls a “distinction essay,” followed by some commentary on the essay’s theme and purpose. Members are then invited to write their own essay, based on Palahniuk’s “rules,” and post it to the members section. Other members review each work. Part of Palahniuk’s legacy in years to come may be that some people who otherwise might not even have tried writing are developing their own contributions to the minimalist style he has brought to the forefront of American literature.

Palahniuk’s edgy, blunt style has bled over from the fringe, capturing many mainstream readers who once thought that such topics were too crude to talk about in daylight. How can you tell what might make it into the next Chuck Palahniuk book? As the narrator of “Choke,” Victor Mancini, says, “Just keep asking yourself: ‘What would Jesus not do?’ ”

The imminent release of Palahniuk’s next project, a collection of nonfiction pieces called “Stranger Than Fiction” (due in June), will no doubt thrill readers with its bizarre view of life from the edge of the world in a way only Chuck Palahniuk can present it. Between the following for his writing, fiction and non, and the adaptations of his work for film, Palahniuk’s future seems secure. Every work he has published since the “Fight Club” film made his name known has sold respectable numbers.

From the windswept plateau of Eastern Washington to Hollywood, and into the hearts of his fans, the man from nowhere is somewhere at last.

Raven Nightshado is a writer/artist/musician who lives in Oregon. She is pursuing a degree in civil engineering.

Related link: Chuck Palahniuk's official site

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