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Buy one of the following Chuck Palahniuk books from amazon.com:

'Fight Club' (1996)

'Survivor' (1998)

'Invisible Monsters' (1999)

'Choke' (2002)

'Lullaby' (2003)

'Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon' (2003)

'Diary' (2003)

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What's Up Chuck?: It's always something with Chuck Palahniuk, who's out to shake up his own reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

'Diary' of a Prankster

His new novel may be his most traditional yet, but Chuck Palahniuk is still keeping the book world off balance

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Chuck Palahniuk, author of dark bestsellers like Fight Club and Lullaby, has concocted his most complex novel yet. Diary, a distressing horror tale of the artist as eternal prisoner, explores much more traditional themes than his previous novels: the sources of creative inspiration, the artist's quest for immortality and the crass commercialization of just about everything.

But while Diary is Palahniuk's most accessible book to date, it still contains the raw, gloomy nihilism his fans love so much. In fact, the book hurls every possible emotion--happy or sad--right in your face, which might explain why Jinks/Cohen Productions, the folks who made American Beauty, are negotiating for it already.

"In a way, I wanted to do what Ira Levin did so well in the late '60s and early '70s," Palahniuk explained over the phone from his native Portland, Ore. "Levin was able to create these really funny metaphors that charm you and get you thinking about social issues. Rosemary's Baby was so much about women's rights to control their bodies. And The Stepford Wives was totally about the men's backlash against feminism. And [those books] completely preceded society's acknowledging these issues. They dealt with those issues in a really clever, nonthreatening way. I just wanted to do this whole conspiracy horror thing that Ira Levin did so well and address social issues that way."

Diary, as its title suggests, takes the form of daily diary, but not your typical chronicle of haves and have-nots. It's a "coma diary," written by failed artist Misty Wilmont to her husband Peter, who lies in a coma following a suicide attempt. She complains to Peter, crying over how he persuaded her to quit art school, marry him and move to Waytansea Island, his childhood home. As a result, she leads an island life of misery--not aspiring to be a famous painter like she originally planned.

Waytansea Island, a place once quaint and respected, is a locale now overrun with summer tourists, garbage and consumerism, and the novel gradually unfolds in many layers. We find out that Peter ran a remodeling firm on the island and scrawled murderous messages on the walls of the tourists' summer homes. There's also Misty's mother-in-law Grace and an old doctor named Nieman, who are both bent on getting rid of the tourists and restoring the island to its old charm.

Then Misty begins painting again at a sudden and prolific rate--but in very uncomfortable circumstances, deliberately contrived by Grace and Dr. Nieman. We find out that Misty's life, as told in her diary, exactly recalls the lives of two previous artists who died on the island. From there, the plot unravels in the style of Rosemary's Baby, with Misty slowly realizing that she is the centerpiece of some twisted sinister plot.

At one point, Grace tells Misty: "We all die. The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will." Indeed, humanity's quest for immortality runs all through Diary and Palahniuk believes the quest is a universal one.

"I took the idea of how we leave our mark on things, and looked for as many ways to demonstrate that as possible," he explained. "Hegel, the German philosopher, wrote a lot about that quest for immortality, that quest to transcend death. We typically do it in one of three ways: one, by having children or progeny, two, we get obsessed with religion and the immortality of the soul, or three, we try and create a work of art that will go on into the future."

Original Prankster

When he has the time, Palahniuk still pals around with the Portland lodge of the Cacophony Society, a nationwide band of disorganized pranksters that originated in San Francisco. As a result of Palahniuk's affiliation with the society, several pranks are starting to happen at his readings, the latest of which occurred in Seattle a few months ago.

He was reading from his Fugitives and Refugees, a new travel book documenting fringe adventures in Portland. One of those adventures is the notorious Santa Rampage, a.k.a. The Red Tide, where 50-100 troublemakers wear Santa suits, go bar-hopping all day long and cause a public nuisance in places they don't belong. (See www.santarchy.com.) At the Seattle reading, several folks showed up in Santa costumes after imbibing heavily at a bar down the street. They forced Palahniuk to don Santa pants and slam tequila shots.

But this doesn't bother Palahniuk in the least bit. Believe it or not, he actually encourages people to disrupt the readings, because it gives the events a more participatory nature. It breaks down the barrier between the author and his audience--the tired old "art vs. life" barrier, redrawn and subsequently redestroyed all over again.

With Bookshop Santa Cruz campaigning to "Keep Santa Cruz Weird," I'm sure they won't mind. So take it from Palahniuk's mouth: Prank away!

Truth be told, Palahniuk wants to completely reinvent the entire concept of the author-reading anyway. He hands out ridiculous prizes to members of the audience. He gives them tiaras. He wants to bring the Ken Kesey-style author-on-tour-as-traveling-circus into the 21st century. "Next year, I have a nonfiction essay book coming out," he said, "and it would be a lot of fun to put together some sort of ongoing theater thing. I would love to travel with actors and present something really funny, and really pull people in."

On this tour, he's promoting both Fugitives and Refugees and Diary, so he just hasn't had the time to incorporate the theater/circus elements yet. "If I had more time, I'd like to hire people to come in and do stuff, whether it's strippers, magicians or whatever, but right now I'm doing what I can."

What else does the future hold for Chuck Palahniuk?

"Now I'm working on a collection of short stories that are going to be like the darkest, most offensive short stories I can conceive of," he said. "Completely upsetting, disgusting stuff. It's blowing my editor away--just all the really dark things Edgar Allan Poe couldn't write about in his time."


Chuck Palahniuk will read from his new book, 'Diary,' on Sunday, Sept. 7, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave.; 831.423.0900. Pranks welcomed.

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From the September 3-10, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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