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Chuck Palahniuk probes for a visceral response in his harrowing new novel, 'Haunted'

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THROUGHOUT Chuck Palahniuk's 2003 author tour, 67 unrelated people fainted while he read his short story "Guts." A few folks actually vomited and went to the hospital. Originally published in Playboy, "Guts" features such delightful scenes as a stoned man masturbating with a rod of candle wax shoved up his penis only to have the rod slip into his bladder. In another scene, a chap gets his intestines sucked out though his rectum by a pump in a swimming pool. And then there's the obligatory carrot-up-the-butt scene. You'll either violently wince or laugh out loud when you read it—even the third time around.

"I think the one thing that sets [the audience] off is they get so disarmed in the first part of the story that once they realize where it's going, they sweat like pigs and they fall down," Palahniuk said over the phone. "It's a joy to watch it."

According to Palahniuk, the folks in the audience who passed out during the readings really did indeed pass out. It wasn't a publicity stunt.

"It was all real," he said. "Some people sent me their hospital admission forms to get me to sign them and send them back."

Palahniuk, who also penned Fight Club, Survivor and Lullaby, explained that at Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, a blood stain on the carpet still exists where someone fainted during the reading and cracked his head open on the wooden bookshelf.

"I don't know what it is about that story, but it just knocks 'em over," he quipped.

Palahniuk says he gets criticized almost every day for writing just to shock people, but he doesn't consider these stories shocking in the least bit.

"Most of what I write is true," he insisted. "And the 'Guts' story is three true stories, goddammit. I think they are magnificent stories, and it just drove me crazy that I couldn't preserve these stories, and that nobody wanted to hear these stories. Because these are things that three living people still continually have to deal with. The wax guy, the carrot guy and the pool guy are still out there walking around. And I'm like, 'Fuck you,' if you can't take another person's true story—it's sort of an insult to these people if someone claims that their stories are too extreme or unrealistic or whatever, because I actually water things down. ... These are true stories, and it just pisses me off that Americans sort of live this 'If it's not on TV, I don't believe it' [life]."

Amen. After all, a writer's job is not to reaffirm everyone's fake myths about how the world is supposed to be. His or her task should be an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare at the least. Enough with the airplane novels and the Fabio covers!

"Guts" is one of 23 short stories that Palahniuk framed in a novel setting for his new book, Haunted, an Edgar Allan Poe-style morbid thriller featuring a group of writers who attend an isolated writers' retreat only to have everything gradually go awry.

The book flip-flops between the short stories themselves and the actual narrative of the novel. About 400 pages later, you've got pubescent silicon sex dolls with razor blades in their vaginas, a serial killer chef who assassinates food critics, a tranny who sneaks into an all-female writers' retreat and, of course, cannibalism. In pure Palahniuk fashion, the table of contents appears at the end of the book.

Cacophony

When he has the time, Palahniuk still pals around with the Portland lodge of the Cacophony Society, a jumbled band of 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.

In 2003, he was reading at the Park Branch Library in San Francisco from his Fugitives and Refugees, a travel book documenting fringe adventures in his hometown of Portland. One of those adventures is the notorious Santa Rampage, a.k.a. the Red Tide, where 50 to 100 troublemakers wear Santa suits, go barhopping all day long and cause a drunk-in-public nuisance in places they don't belong. (See www.santarchy.com.)

At the reading, several folks in Santa costumes showed up and disrupted the event after imbibing heavily at Murio's on Haight Street. One Santa sprayed Palahniuk in the face with whipped cream and got socked by Palahniuk's burly media escort.

Earlier that morning, another monster prank took place. Chuck was in town to promote his novel Diary. The story takes place on a fictional island on which yuppie tourists vacation every summer. A building contractor named Peter lives on the island and hates the tourists, so he infiltrates their summer homes and walls off the doorways to particular rooms. That is, he seals off entrances. As a result, the tourists come back to find their bathrooms gone, their kitchens gone or their living rooms gone, because Peter has walled off the rooms.

Chuck's reading in San Francisco took place in the downstairs rec-room of the Park Branch Library on Page Street. Apropos of the Diary novel, the San Francisco Cacophony Society decided to prank the event by sealing off the entrance of the room so no one could get into the reading. They spent two days constructing a plywood wall and they sealed off the doorway. Unfortunately, the wall wasn't permanent enough, and the employees tore it down before Chuck even showed up. No one even got the joke.

In short, you never know what's going to happen at a Chuck Palahniuk reading. He usually passes out gifts so the audience can play a role in the event itself. And this time he's shipped an entire case of junk to each venue, but he won't disclose what's in the case.

"People [should] have a participatory way to be in the event," he explained. "[I'm trying] to make the event into not just something you witness, but something you experience. During "Guts," people walked into the event, it was so goddamned crowded, they were shoulder to shoulder, and they hated each other because there was too many other people. But after they had lived through "Guts," they were bonded—like they had lived through a major life event. They were laughing, they were high, they were euphoric and they cared for the people who fell down on the ground. It was really magnificent. It was like they had all experienced an earthquake or something. ... They were all so comfortable. They didn't hate each other afterwards. ... That's the whole idea, to be the biggest idiot I can be up there."


Chuck Palahniuk appears Thursday (May 19) at 7:30pm at Kepler's, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. (650. 324.4321) Haunted; Doubleday; $24.95 cloth.


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From the May 18-24, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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