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Review: Haunting 'Diary' worth prying into

By L.D. Meagher

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(CNN) -- It seems such a mundane story: a waitress at a crumbling resort hotel, scraping by on tips, trying to provide for a growing daughter while fending off an overbearing mother-in-law. The hard-working single mother is a staple, if not a cliché, of 20th-century American storytelling.

Leave it to Chuck Palahniuk to see in that familiar tale the seeds of horror.

The author of "Fight Club" and "Lullaby" has an uncanny eye for the possibilities of the extraordinary hiding behind the quotidian. In his latest novel, "Diary," Palahniuk turns the single mother convention inside out. He sends "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" through the looking glass.

"Diary" is the story of Misty, a one-time art student who succumbs to the whirlwind advances of a classmate, Peter Wilmot. They marry and return his home on the wryly named Waytansea Island, just off the coast.

Any fantasies they harbored of a life in the heady milieu of the art world dissolve in the day-to-day dreariness of the once-prosperous island. It is an advertising-glutted, tourist-befouled ghost of earlier glory.

Peter makes ends meet by remodeling houses. When he falls into a coma after a failed suicide attempt, Misty becomes the sole provider for the family. She also discovers her husband had suffered some sort of mental collapse and defaced the homes he was supposed to be sprucing up.

Creativity and captivity

The narrative takes the form of a "coma diary" recounting events that transpire while a loved one is unconscious -- and what events they are.

Misty becomes a captive of her own furious creativity, churning out paintings at an astonishing rate while trapped in a room at the hotel. Tended by Peter's mother and a suspiciously unsympathetic doctor, she exhausts herself creating pictures she cannot understand and often never even sees.

Palahniuk writes the story tangentially. He seldom approaches the plot head-on. Instead, he builds it from oblique angles, often obscuring events and motives the way a funhouse mirror reflects reality.

In the midst of her painting, Misty endures a seemingly pointless digression by the doctor on two mystic sects, the Jain Buddhists and the Jewish Essenes.

"Essenses taught the young Jesus Christ. They taught John the Baptist," he writes.

"They called themselves healers and performed all of Christ's miracles -- curing the sick, reviving the dead, casting out demons -- for centuries before Lazarus. The Jains turned water into wine centuries before the Essenes, who did it centuries before Jesus.

" 'You can repeat the same miracles over and over as long as no one remembers the last time,' the doctor says. 'You remember that.' "

The discourse seems to be a bit of rambling, but it has a very distinct purpose, as does every seemingly inconsequential -- even bizarre -- turn of events.

Palahniuk constructs his story as precisely as a stage magician's grand illusion, building to a powerful climax that leaves the audience stunned and breathless. "Diary" triumphantly exposes the evil that lurks in the banality of everyday life.

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