ON THE NIHILISM OF CHUCK PALAHNIUK
As many people hate his writing as do love it, those devotees who are apart of the Cult, the Club, whatever you would like to call the fandom which surrounds Chuck Palahniuk. Writing since his late twenties — and even some before then — Palahniuk has been around just as long as many of your more favorable writers. While not the literary sensation that was Bret Easton Ellis in the mid-eighties, or the prodigal son David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk still ranks as one of the enigmatic figures of the cultural revolution which occurred in America at the twilight of the twentieth century, and the turn of the millennium, one who, prophetically and likely unknowingly, predicted what that brave new world would look like in the coming years. It was a vision that was both scary and exciting.
By the time he had rolled out his third novel, Survivor, in 1999, Palahniuk had already culled the cultural herd as far as what the new couple of years were going to look like. He could not have known that 9/11 would occur (the novel Survivor is based around a black-box tape as a man, who hijacks a plane, tells his story up to this point; this in itself is already a brief hint that Palahniuk has a particular formula), yet he understood it’s incredible implications. More importantly, how desperate the American landscape has become for spirituality in a time so devoid of it, consumed by the furious bullet of materialism of which we have shotgunned through our heads, leaving nothing but lifeless vessels, zombies (the name of a short story he wrote in 2008, and published in his latest short story collection, Make Something Up). It was also in 1999 that he rolled out Invisible Monsters; the publishers had originally rejected it for being “too gruesome.” As a result of anger and a certain passion, he wrote Fight Club, a novel just as edgy and twisted, filled with all the same punk that makes Palahniuk so unique, only without the LGBTQ issues and a lot less high drama. Still, Invisible Monsters involved certain themes that he’d only touched upon in Fight Club, among other personal demons which he’d already been wrestling with before his major debut, namely, “alternative lifestyles.”
In 2003, Palahniuk revealed that he was gay to a reporter for Entertainment Weekly, though he’d not meant to reveal such a thing; believing that the reporter was going to outs him, he made it public in a vicious and angry post on his website. Though, after realizing that the reporter had never intended to reveal this fact, he apologized and relinquished the statement, but it was out there. Palahniuk — like his less prolific contemporary, Bret Easton Ellis — was gay, and had been living with a partner for more than twenty years. The status of this relationship is unknown at the time, but the implications it had for his writing was unbridled. 1999’s Invisible Monsters, had struggled with the same thing, with the main character’s parents totally disowning their son after it was learned he was gay; later, a transgender by the name of Brandy Alexander, one of Palahniuk’s most heartbreaking and hilarious characters, who is, in fact, Queen Supreme. Given certain passages from the novel:
Inside, my father said, “It’s not strep throat you’ve got, mister, and we’d like to know where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to.”
“Drugs,” my mom said. “we could deal with.”
Shane never said a word. His face still shiny and creased with scars.
“Teenage pregnancy,” my mom said, “we could deal with.”
Not one word.
“Dr. Peterson,” she said,. “He said there’s just about only one way you could get the disease the way you have it, but I told him, no, not our child, not you, Shane.”
… “Tonight,” my father said. “we want you out of here.”
The same people being so good and kind and caring and involved, these same people finding identity and personal fulfillment in the fight on the front lines for equality and personal dignity and equal rights for their dead son, these are the same people I heard yelling through my bedroom door.
“We don’t know what kind of filthy diseases you’re bringing into this house, mister, but you can just find another place to sleep tonight.”
The passage is full of a fearful rage that one can only surmise is the sort of reaction Palahniuk may’ve expected, not so much from his own family, but the public, the publishing house; in a time when being gay was still a strange and odd way of living — and Palahniuk having kept it so private for so long — imagined what it would be like to be abandoned. More than this, he understood the major shift the world was headed towards during the time, and how things would not always be as they were.
The most prophetic of his novels remains, though, Fight Club.
Often described by himself as a novel in reaction to a generation raised by women, the angst and frustration of such a society is displayed in full on nearly every page of the novel. From Marla Singer’s cancer, remaining men togther, the suave bravado of Tyler Durden (further realized by the young and ephemeral Brad Pitt), the brutal destruction of a beautiful boy named Angel, Project Mayhem — all of it was a product of a certain need to break free of the incarceration of which society had bound up it’s people by. Palahniuk, most fall, introduced nihilism into the mainstream, and it has been, with existentialism, a philosophy inseparable with today’s meme and gif culture.
This particular introduction, and the way in which it is embraced in Fight Club, is so strong that, Palahniuk saw fit to continue drawing it into nearly every one of his narratives in one way or another, at least, when it came to his major releases, and less his short stories (which, are, in many cases, actually a lot more interesting and colorful than his longer works; this does not demerit the major brilliance of the works, it only means that, without the particular bounds of having to stretch the story on for 300 pages, Palahniuk is much freer to experiment). His first three novels — Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, and Survivor — essentially have the same plot. As he describes it himself in Strange than Fiction:
If you haven’t already noticed, all my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.
In Fight Club, it’s the unnamed Narrator attempting to get people to sympathize with him, attempting to feel like somebody in a society where everyone is a nobody, where he is in a conflict between his authentic self and the self that has been created by the society around him. In Invisible Monsters, it’s Shannon attempting to connect with her “dead” brother and coming to grips with reality after having so long been duped by the modelling industry. Survivor is about a man, raised in a cult, who suddenly steps out into a society he knows nothing about, only to become a media messiah attempting to get his message out to people — that they are dying, to a certain extent, under the burden of contemporary society — while he is destroyed by the world around him. Each of them also incorporate certain plot elements that we should say are based in Fight Club — with Survivor, the Creedish Death Cult is the stand in for Remaining Men Together; in Invisible Monsters, it’s Shannon’s rehabilitation, and possibly the Rhea Sisters. Each of the novel’s has their own “gimmick” (particularly apparent in many of his recent novels such as Pygmy or Tell-All), and each of it’s central figures has a version of Marla Singer — in Survivor it’s Fertility Hollis, and in Invisible Monsters, it’s Manus (or Evie, or even Brandy) — which is just someone who calls out the main character for being the “faker,” as in Fight Club when the narrator pretends to have different diseases for attention. The more of Palahniuk you read, while the writing gets better (or stays very excellent), the plots begin to sound similar, you begin to connect many dots, you eventually come to realize that, more often than not, Palahniuk is almost copying himself — and he knows it.
With insomnia, nothing’s real; everything’s far away. A copy of a copy of a copy.
1984’s The Incredible Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera’s most famous novel that serves as a vicious critique of Nietzsche’s philosophy begins as such:
"The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything occurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?"
Kundera, within the first couple of pages of the novel, breaks down the idea, calling it absurd for the fact that he accuses of Nietzsche of de-humanizing the man, by asserting that, because everything has happened, and is going to happen again, nothing must matter. This is to say that, one’s life is insignificant because, there is nothing particularly unique about it. Kundera refutes this, furiously, by writing a novel about several people attempting to find love in their lives, showing that, even as they search after the same thing, their circumstance are incredibly unique, that their lives are important because they make them so.
It may be a misreading of Nietzsche, or my own perception of Nietzsche, but this is how I have always perceived Nihilism — it is because you are insignificant, that you are free; because your life is so without purpose, you can fill it with whatever meaning you like. To put it best:
It is only after you have lost everything that you are free to do anything.
The point is, though, that in the same way that Kundera used Being as an argument against nihilism, Palahniuk is using his entire oeuvre of work to both prove and disprove it — at once, he writers novels which are essentially what eternal return looks like. All the same beats and rhymes, yet each of one of them strikingly different in their meaning, which is where we see Kundera’s influence on Palahniuk: each novel is unique in their plot, unique in the particular situation that their characters face. The eternal return is the return of life’s Absurdity (see Camus), which Palahniuk fully embraces and writes masterfully about in each one of his books. Whether eternal return is true or not, Palahniuk is using it to create insurmountable novels that depict the reality and absurdity of our times.