Each of the books discussed here features people with similar quirks: there are tortured artists (Diary, Haunted), attention-seekers (Choke, Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Survivor), experts in the many and varied uses of narcotics (Choke, Invisible Monsters, Lullaby – well, all of them, really). There are therapy junkies, sex addicts, fraudsters, trailer trash, delusionals, sacrificial women, scammers and liars and doctors-who-aren’t-really and grown-ups who haven’t quite grown up. And many of these characters seem to exist in order to play God. To shake things up. To control – or disrupt, or end – other people’s boring lives.
“People had been working for so many years to make the world a safe, organized place,” says Victor, the narrator in Choke:
Nobody realized how boring it would become. With the whole world property-lined and speed-limited and zoned and taxed and regulated, with everyone tested and registered and addressed and recorded. Nobody had left much room for adventure, except maybe the kind you could buy. On a roller coaster. At a movie. Still, it would always be that kind of faux excitement. You know the dinosaurs aren’t going to eat the kids. The test audiences have outvoted any chance of even a major faux disaster. And because there’s no possibility of real disaster, real risk, we’re left with no chance for real salvation. Real elation. Real excitement. Joy. Discovery. Invention.
The laws that keep us safe, these same laws condemn us to boredom.
This is also allegedly why Victor pretends to choke on his food every night while dining out: “To showcase just one brave stranger. To save just one more person from boredom. It’s not just for the money. It’s not just for the adoration.”
In Lullaby, Carl Streator and Helen Hoover Boyle have discovered a magical “culling spell” – an eight-line children’s poem that, when read in full, instantly kills the listener. For much of the narrative, they drive around the United States trying to collect all copies of the deadly book of Poems from Around the World – ostensibly to save people from accidentally committing murder. But it soon becomes clear that the pair isn’t acting for the good of society, but to maintain control over it:
“This isn’t about love and hate,” Helen says.
It’s about control. People don’t sit and read a poem to kill their child. They just want the child to sleep. They just want to dominate. No matter how much you love someone, you still want to have your own way.
That’s essentially what Project Mayhem is all about. As in Fight Club (and Haunted, Choke, Diary, Survivor, and Invisible Monsters) the characters in Lullaby want to be in control of shaking people from the stupor of happy boredom: “the plan is to undermine the illusion of safety and comfort in people’s lives.”
In Haunted, a group of eccentric characters go off on what is supposed to be a three month writing retreat – each person’s backstory is told, Canterbury Tales-style, in a series of interconnected short poems and stories penned by the characters themselves. Like many of Palahniuk’s creatures, this bunch is self-consciously aware that they’re unconventional and, as a result, somehow more awake than the rest of the ‘normal’ population. As they’re travelling on the bus, taking a road trip (as so many of the ‘outsiders’ in these novels do) to their secret destination, they remark:
The dreaming world, they’d think we were crazy. Those people still in bed, they’d be asleep another hour, then washing their faces, under their arms, and between their legs, before going to the same work they did every day. Living that same life, every day.
In other words, normal (boring) people are sleeping through their (boring) lives. The need for the everyman to wake up is one of the most common themes in Palahniuk’s work, which has its roots in Fight Club, Chapter 3: “You wake up at Air Harbor International… You wake up at O’Hare. You wake up at LaGuardia. You wake up at Logan… You wake up at Dulles… You wake up at Love Field…” and so on. It is no coincidence that this chapter, with these repeated wake-ups, is the one in which the narrator meets Tyler Durden – the man responsible for “waking” him from his IKEA-filled, suit-and-tie-wearing existence. The man who causes the narrator’s insomnia. The man behind Project Mayhem. In Haunted, the writers are up and on the bus by 4.30am, which makes them feel like adventurers, explorers, astronauts. They are proud to be “Awake while [everyone else] slept.”
No matter their gender or their settings, so many of Palahniuk’s characters are caught up with teaching the faceless, generic mass of humanity a lesson by example: “To create a race of masters from a race of slaves, Mr Whittier said, to teach a controlled group of people how to create their own lives…” Note the pun in the writing teacher’s name here: he is “wittier” than everyone else, because he is doing something to upset the status quo. He is rescuing the other characters, whether they like it or not. In other words, he has a saviour complex – just like everyone else.
Tyler Durden appears in Fight Club to save people from being mindless drones like the ones described in the novel’s first chapter: “You do the little job you’re trained to do. Pull a lever. Push a button. You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die.” There’s no point to anything. Everything is a repetition of what’s come before. Everyone is asleep. Everyone is a space monkey. But being part of Project Mayhem, breaking out, rebelling, even at the risk of death – well, “This was better than real life.”
What happens afterwards may not be the average Joe’s idea of salvation, but from the characters’ perspectives, their drastic, often drug-fuelled actions are precisely that. “I don’t expect you to understand,” says the narrator of Survivor, after explaining how random strangers phone him at all hours on the verge of suicide, and he encourages them to kill themselves. “Try barbiturates and alcohol with your head inside a dry cleaning bag,” he says. “Pull the trigger or don’t. I’m with her right now. She’s not going to die alone, but I don’t have all night.” Palahniuk’s solutions to middle-class ennui are typically satirical, increasingly over-the-top. In order to save people, the narrator of Survivor tells them to die. Carl and Helen kill dozens of people in Lullaby in order to “save the children”. In an attempt to preserve the lifestyle of Waytansea Island (another pun), Misty’s mother-in-law and the town doctor keep her trapped in a hotel for weeks; just like Mr Whittier keeps his writing students trapped in a surreal hotel for three months during their “retreat” in Haunted; just as Victor and his mother are trapped in the past in Choke, while others are trapped in the hospital. All of it is done for good reason, they seem to think. It’s done for the good of others.
“Destabilising social norms seem to be the only ways these characters can be saved from their own fakery”
At the same time, characters go to extremes in order to force other people to save them. The narrator of Survivor hijacks an airplane. In Invisible Monsters, the protagonist goes to drastic lengths to stop being beautiful and boring: “What I need to do is fuck up so bad I can’t save myself.” Meanwhile her companion, a drag queen named Brandy Alexander, plans to undergo sex reassignment surgery – not because she really wants to become a woman, but because “it’s just the biggest mistake [she] can think to make. It’s stupid and destructive… That’s why [she has] to go through with it.” In Lullaby, Carl wants to get caught by the police; he wants to turn himself in, just to leave his fate up to the authorities. Similarly, Victor’s mother in Choke breaks law after law in order to “save” her son. Breaking the law and destabilising social norms seem to be the only ways these characters can be saved from their own fakery, from the otherwise inescapable humdrum of the everyday, from life.
In Choke, Victor fakes choking to death in order, he says, to give others the chance to feel like saviours. But in so doing, Victor is selfishly seeking an escape from the problems in his life. Instead of taking a road trip, as the characters do in Invisible Monsters and Lullaby for example, Victor escapes into the warm embraces of strangers – either through casual sex, or from being “saved” by strangers in restaurants. Gasping for breath, Victor cries, night after night, while snuggling into his ‘rescuer’s’ embrace. He revels in the feelings of calm and release that come with this post-salvation cuddle – much like the narrator in Fight Club cries for release while burying himself in Big Bob’s immense hug at the Remaining Men Together therapy sessions. It’s the same escape – for characters, and for readers – over and over and over.
In these novels, Palahniuk has come up with a template for his stories that has earned him a cult following. Minimalist writing. Screwed-up characters. Nihilism. Repetitive choruses. Wittiness. Surreal, humorous satire. The issue I’ve got with these books is certainly not the content, nor the subject matter. It’s not the what of them that’s grown tiresome. It’s the how. How much they repeat themselves. How similar they are in technique. How they are inherently about waking up, but insist on presenting these shake-ups in now-conventional ways. How much they echo Fight Club – and like all echoes, they aren’t as crisp as the original note. And after reading these novels back-to-back-to-back, this passage from Fight Club rings truer than ever:
“Go home, tonight, and forget about fight club. I think fight club has served its purpose, don’t you?”
LISA L HANNETT
If you enjoyed Lisa L Hannett’s column, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and buying her fiction. If you do you’ll help keep the This Is Horror ship afloat with a very welcome slice of remuneration.
Support This Is Horror Podcast on Patreon
- For $1 you get early bird access to all our podcasts and can submit questions to guests.
- For $3 you get access to our patrons-only podcast Story Unboxed: The Horror Podcast on the Craft of Writing.
- For $4 you get the full interview, no two-parters.
The best way to support This Is Horror is via Patreon. How much will you pledge? Go on. Be awesome.
This Is Horror Books
This Is Horror Books on Kindle Unlimited and Amazon
- They Don’t Come Home Anymore by T.E. Grau
- A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman
- The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud
- The Elvis Room by Stephen Graham Jones
- Water For Drowning by Ray Cluley
- Chalk by Pat Cadigan
- Roadkill by Joseph D’Lacey