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[whitespace] Chuck Palahniuk Fight Clubber: Palahniuk's best known for his literary soap opera, but his latest offering is a horror novel.

Nothing's Shocking

Chuck Palahniuk flirts with nihilism and mainstream success as he continues his all-out assault on banality


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A DISFIGURED FASHION model and a drag queen take to the road in order to reinvent their past, present and future with gender-bending drugs. A religious cult survivor dictates his life story into the black box of a hijacked 747 about to go down. A bored sex-addict attends Sexaholics Anonymous meetings to pick up women and fakes choking in restaurants to earn money for his mother, who's in a loony farm. These are the schizo identities of Chuck Palahniuk's cacophonous fiction.

Palahniuk (pronounced paula-nick) is a member of Portland's "Dangerous Writers Community" and first dive-bombed on mainstream media when director David Fincher brought his novel Fight Club to the motion picture screen. It was all uphill from there. Since then, Palahniuk has vaulted to cult status with his three subsequent novels, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and last year's Choke. His dark, scathing sociological satire has earned him such apocalyptic handles as "torchbearer of the nihilistic generation," and his books deal heavily with the disillusionment of the American Dream.

Critics who castigate his first four books as being overly similar will be delighted to know that Palahniuk's new novel Lullaby (Doubleday; 256 pages, $24.95 cloth) is a savage break from his previous material. "The previous books all deal with identity and how a person achieves identity in the world," he says, speaking on the phone from his native Portland. "With this next book, it's really more about a person who's in the world and responding to something that comes externally, other than coming from within. This is the first time where the characters are reacting to an external disrupter. In a way, that's the definition of horror, according to Stephen King in Danse Macabre: You establish a reality and then you bring in an external variable or a threat to that reality."

Palahniuk says he moved to horror instead of staying with transgressive fiction because since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 the latter just isn't being read the same way. Scathing social commentary is taken way too seriously and it's simply a bad time to lampoon the disillusionment of the American Dream.

"Whether it's eco-terrorism, monkey wrench gangs, or cultural terrorism like Trainspotting, people just do not see it the same way anymore," he says. "They can't laugh at it. If you're going to say anything about culture, you have to do it carefully and in a charming, entertaining way, like George Orwell did with Animal Farm. In the 1950s, people got so good at using science fiction and fantasy to say things about the culture that they couldn't say straight out. So that's why I've moved to horror novels."

Crib Notes

Lullaby is about a jaded, burned-out journalist named Carl Streator who is assigned to investigate a series of crib deaths related to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. At the scene of each crime, he finds the same book of poems and chants opened to the same page where there appears an African "culling song." It turns out that the song is a spell for killing people, and whenever it's sung, spoken or even thought in someone's direction, that person drops dead. Streator then gets the song stuck in his head, turning himself into an involuntary serial killer. Together with real estate agent Helen Boyle who sells haunted houses, they embark on a road trip to remove all copies of the book from existence. Joining them are a devout Wiccan named Mona Sabbat and her eco-terrorist boyfriend Oyster.

Everything is in here: naked Wiccan rituals, red and black dreadlocks, fake liability scams, a talking Judas cow and a "Roadkill Jesus Christ" who brings dead animals on the side of the road back to life. The novel contains the trademark Palahniuk technique of jamming a million different sub-themes into the same plot but somehow keeping it all cohesive.

"I try to make every moment of the book present in every other moment, so that you don't just read something and forget it. You read it and you carry it with you all the way through," he says.

Palahniuk's disjointed, unformulaic novels are structured the way they are partly because he doesn't plunk himself down for a certain amount of hours at home with the intention of cranking out a predetermined amount of words per day, like many authors do. In fact, he never writes at home. Ever. Instead, he puts pen to paper wherever he goes about in his daily activities, and the more distractions the better.

"The last place I want to work is at home in front of that damn computer. It's only when you're interacting with other people that you get really great ideas. You get outside your own head and you see things in a totally new and surprising way. Writing is something that just happens on top of my everyday living. It's not something I can really do deliberately. I do it as part of my everyday life."

Gooble Gobble, One of Us

Which is exactly why fans flock to his readings: because he's one of them. When a mob of disruptive pranksters invaded his Berkeley reading disguised as bruised catering waiters and pelted the audience with dinner rolls (a la Fight Club), he was naturally freaked out, but quite appreciative.

"It feels so stilted and artificial to withhold the writer, like a magic trick, and then introduce him to the audience and bring him out onstage, creating that 'real' sort of person vs. the persons in the audience," he says. "And anything that blurs the line between those two is something that enables everyone in attendance to be part of the event."

Palahniuk's novels are really striking a chord with the bored, disenfranchised youth of America, and he attributes the fandom to the kids' refusal to be manipulated. "The last thing you want to do is tell somebody how to feel or what to think," he says. "You can make a case for how the character feels or thinks, and you try to make a really good argument and let them explain their world views, but you don't want to bully the reader. In this way, things end up being possibly a little open-ended because the author doesn't ultimately state his position on the issue. I think young people appreciate that. They resent being manipulated and being told how to think about an issue."

With two more books due out next year, Palahniuk is gunning up for an all-out infiltration of the masses. The second academic conference on his oeuvre takes place next spring, and he is currently assembling an art gallery comprised of all the crazy things his fans have sent him in the mail. Choke has also been optioned for a movie.

And in what little spare time he has, Palahniuk still gallivants around with the Portland chapter of the Cacophony Society, a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream civilization. According to Palahniuk, "Cacophony is such an experiential potlatch in that you provide something for other people and host them to do an event, and they host you to do an event, and, suddenly, even if you're doing just one event a year, you find your life filled up with so many incredible things. And with the books, that's what I really like--the idea of trying to give people an adventure that is something so totally warped and beyond what they expect."

Chuck Palahniuk will read from his new book, 'Lullaby,' at the Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Saturday, Sept. 21, at 7:30pm. (831.462.2536)

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From the September 18-25, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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