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An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 10/1/2008

Victor Mancini, the pathetic narrator of the satirical novel Choke, is desperate to be loved. Usually that means an endless quest for the anesthetizing buzz that comes from sex with strangers, but as a side endeavor he makes himself gag on python-sized mouthfuls of food in restaurants so he can con people into feeling like a hero when they save his life. What he needs is a hug, but he’ll settle for the rib-breaking jerk of the Heimlich maneuver instead.

In sharp contrast, Victor’s creator Chuck Palahniuk isn’t suffering from a lack of love these days, not in the wake of a cult following that started casting its spores into the world after the 1996 publication of the novel Fight Club and subsequently mushroomed to celebrity proportions after that book’s 1999 movie adaptation became a word of mouth DVD hit. At one free reading last year in Philadelphia, 800 adoring fans showed up, some in wedding dresses because Palahniuk invited them to on his web site--and, judging from the gifts he bestows on them at readings, such as like rubber severed legs and steak-scented air fresheners, he loves them right back. But the attention from the press, especially today, on one stop of an exhaustive press tour in conjunction with the screen adaptation of Choke, that hug is starting to feel like the Heimlich.

“This has been a hundred times the press junket for [the movie version of] Fight Club,” he says. “I mean, this just has been . . .” He trails off as he searches for the word, a slightly stricken look crossing his face for a moment. “A little much. I can’t believe how much more this has been than Fight Club.”

The combination of Palahniuk’s literary reputation and the robust way his quotes read in print conjures up an image of a lumberjack of letters, a fearless and shaggy man of the woods who eats bears for breakfast. But Palahniuk in person is startlingly gentle, with unblinking pale green eyes that fix on you with mannequin intensity. Dressed in a blue oxford shirt and ironed khakis, he’s from the same semi-beatific mold as Mr. Rogers or David Byrne--patient, clean-cut, deliberate, and slightly not of this world. He sits down, greets each reporter in turn with a gentlemanly “How do you do?” and settles into the questions with ready tolerance, like a diabetic who’s acknowledged that pricking his finger hourly is now a permanent part of his life.

The reporters, mostly earnest 20-somethings from university newspapers, ask a grab bag of questions. He answers each one gamely, but is he happy doing this? Is the grind of a promotional tour a decent enough antidote to the solitary life of a writer, especially one who’s written nine books in the past decade? “To a certain extent,” he says. “It’s people asking things and me telling the same stories, which isn’t very fulfilling for me because I’m not getting great ideas because I’m not hearing their stories.”

If Choke’s plot has any genesis in those stories, Palahniuk’s got some very interesting acquaintances. Victor Mancini swindles his rescuers for petty cash, using the funds to pay for the care of his elderly mother Ida, a self-appointed messenger of creative chaos who dragged Victor along in schemes such as swapping bottles of hair dye in the supermarket in order to destroy unwitting shopper’s attachment to what they think is “their” hair color. Meanwhile, pretty Dr. Paige Marshall has a plan for saving his mother, but it involves a sperm donation, if you get her drift. By the time we get to clones of Jesus extracted from a petrified foreskin and a zoo full of masturbating animals, nothing’s surprising anymore.

“By the time [your book] becomes a movie, thank god it takes so long because by that time, you’ve actually figured out what you are writing about,” Palahniuk says. “The trick with writing is to write about something and fool yourself into going someplace you would never consciously go. And so by writing about it, it looks like this fun adventure, but you’re really tricking yourself into going there.”

So after seeing the movie Choke, what does he now realize about his novel? “I know that Denny is St. Francis of Assisi,” Palahniuk says, referring to Victor’s compulsive masturbator friend who finds a way to redirect his energy, much as St. Francis set aside his plush upbringing for a life of ecstatic poverty. “[And] I wasn’t anticipating I’d have to care for my parents as they age. And so it was very easy to write those scenes with Victor and Ida [in the hospital]. But now that my father’s dead”--Fred Palahniuk and a woman he’d been dating were murdered in 2001 in a horrific double homicide committed by the woman’s ex-husband--“and my mother’s been in the hospital, I could never write those scenes now. Because now it’s way too confrontive for me.”

He pauses. “Yeah, I have to think some more about this. You always realize after the fact what you’ve actually written about, and you’re really shocked . . . You have to seduce yourself into going to this place.”

There’s plenty of readers who don’t need any sweet talk to go willingly to that strange place anymore. It’s hard to imagine a novel told in the mind of three men waiting to participate in a porn gangbang video debuting on the New York Times bestseller list at No. 5, but that’s exactly what Palahniuk’s rabid readers did for his novella Snuff. Now, with Snuff sharing shelf space with his other current novel Rant, and all the anticipatory excitement about his latest book Pygmy (slated for spring 2009), is there a danger of too much buzz transforming Palahniuk from literary figure to a larger than life celebrity, a la Hunter S. Thompson?

“[Thompson] really did have a character or a persona that he always felt himself living into,” Palahniuk says. “And I always felt that character and persona was like Ida Mancini in Choke--the rebel that was always against, against, against, and he never really made the stand for something. He never really proposed a solution.”

Palahniuk, in contrast, although it’s a point lost on critics who condemn his work as nihilistic--a label he rejects, seeing himself instead as a romantic at heart--always makes sure his characters find a solution that, with typically perverse Palahniukian flair, makes their wildest dreams come true. And there’s a sense from Palahniuk that he knows how his own dreams have come true, and how even on this marathon of a press tour he never takes any part of his fame--the pleasure, the opportunity, and the responsibility--for granted. “I was in a seminar in 1989--I can’t even remember what it was called, it was one of those hotel ballroom seminars,” he remembers. “And everyone had to state some huge impossible thing that they were going to devote the rest of their life to. And it had to be something that was so big and so vague that you really couldn’t complete it in the next 5 or 10 years--it really would be something that would be about the rest of your life. And I said I want to write books that bring people back to reading. And it’s so spooky to say that thing--I mean, that was ’89. And Fight Club didn’t come out until ’96. But to see it gradually happen I think does start with that declaration.”

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