Reveling in the soft white underbelly
'Fight Club' author Chuck Palahniuk returns with 'Diary'
By Adam Dunn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Chuck Palahniuk's books are not exactly for the squeamish.
"With one hand, Misty pinches Peter's nipple and pulls it up, stretching it out to a long point. With the other hand, Misty drives the pin through," reads one passage in his new book, "Diary" (Doubleday). "Then she pulls the pin out. The heart monitor blips every moment, not one beat more fast or slow. Misty says, 'Peter darling? Can you feel this?' And again Misty drives the pin through."
But that's just Palahniuk. The author of "Fight Club," "Choke" and many other tales enjoys depicting the horrors of everyday life, offering his take on art, marriage and the paranormal (not to mention oddball sexual behavior).
"Diary" follows the exploits of one Misty Marie Wilmot as viewed through her husband, Peter. Mr. Wilmot is lying comatose in a hospital bed after having gone on tear writing hidden messages in rental homes on Waytansea Island, a rising vacation spot with a shrinking group of blue-blooded natives who have a sinister agenda for reclaiming their island from tourists.
This strange dual storytelling is calculated to keep readers on their toes, says Palahniuk in an online interview from his home base of Portland, Oregon.
"The narrative voice is what I call 'faux third-person.' It appears to be the typical hovering, third-person narrator, but it's too voice-y and slang-y," he says. "It sets up the question of who is really telling the story, a question not answered until the very last page."
The slant on the third-person viewpoint, he adds, allows his characters to be more introspective -- and, sometimes, more vicious -- than they would be otherwise.
"Ever since 'Fight Club,' I've always loved a chance to make a character talk about themselves in the third person," the author says. "The third person allows characters to really attack themselves. We all do this -- attack ourselves -- every hour of our lives."
'The real world has become too scary'
The new book's characters certainly do that, although Palahniuk seems to attack them as well.
Misty is a trailer park refugee; Peter is failed rebel; the Waytansea islanders are a beachfront version of the neighbors in "Rosemary's Baby."
While Palahniuk describes the Wilmots' modern-day marital bliss, a supernatural force takes hold of Misty and begins channeling her lost youthful aptitude for painting into a full-blown reincarnation of prior Waytansea artists. The island, it appears, does not want to become just another overdeveloped resort, and it is reaching across time to stop the flow of progress.
Palahniuk maintains the influence for the new work is less Stephen King than real life.
"Since September 11, 2001, the real world has become too scary for a lot of people to be with -- all the time," he says. "The only way to present social commentary or a cathartic scare is through a slightly ludicrous story -- the way Ira Levin explored a woman's right to control her body in 'Rosemary's Baby' or the male backlash against feminism in 'Stepford Wives.' An over-the-top story allows us to vent our fear and then move on to deal with the actual problem. It's like a little vaccination to prevent death from a later disease."
The commentary in "Diary" is about art -- or rather, the struggle to create it.
"In 'Diary,' the motto really is: Where Do You Get Your Inspiration?" says Palahniuk. "It coaches us to be aware of our motives and not just be a reaction to the circumstances around us. And then -- if we screw up, which we will, again and again -- to forgive ourselves and try to be more aware and make better choices the next time around.
"Your life isn't about doing one perfect 'thing' and then falling down dead," he continues. "It's more like going to church or writing a book. You do it over and over, always trying to be a little bit better. Then you die."
Involving the reader on a physical level
Misty's awakening to artistic genius comes with a price, partly extracted by the islanders, partly -- this being a Palahniuk novel -- from herself ("With the steak knife, Misty starts hacking again. ... Misty hacks again and stabs her shin, the blade going through thin skin, stuck into the bone").
If all this is for the sake of entertainment -- people read books, of course, for escape -- it also has (pardon the pun) a point. Sometimes it's a point that draws blood and pain, but that's the intention, Palahniuk says.
"So much of fiction is only concerned with the cognitive 'thoughts' of a character or the emotional 'feelings,' " the author says. "I want my books to involve the reader on a physical level as well. In some of my books, it's through the symptoms of illness. Medical stuff. In some books, it's through the pain of violence or surgery or self-mutilation.
"One cliché states: 'If you don't know what to write next, describe the inside of the character's mouth,' " he adds. "I'm never too far from a physical sense in my plot, a smell or a pain or an orgasm."