Few consistently bestselling novelists are also considered cult icons, but since the runaway success of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk has occupied a privileged position in the mainstream, bringing out books that are seen as shocking and alternative, but sell to huge cross-sections of the reading public. It has been claimed, believably, that his books sell to people who don't normally read books. Currently on the promo trail for Doomed, a follow up to 2011's Damned, Palahniuk's tour across America befits his literary rock star status; Adult Bedtime Stories has been packing out university theatres with literally thousands of devotees, all following Fight Club-style rules about what to wear and bring.
Unlike the one guy queuing in his dressing gown, I decided not to follow the instructions on Chuck's website to turn up in my favourite pajamas and slippers, clutching a stuffed animal. The UK leg of the Doomed tour is a much quieter affair, but the opening night at White Heat, an indie clubnight at Madame JoJo's in the seedy heart of Soho, reinforced the rock'n'roll vibe. Here are ten things we learned from the reading, the audience Q&A and a 5 minute sit down in the club's dingy fire escape with the man himself.
We didn't find out a lot about Doomed
But then, it is the second book in the trilogy, so we've already been introduced to the characters and the concept. Written as a way to cope with his parents' deaths, the books are loosely based on Dante's Divine Comedy; Damned was set in hell, Doomed in purgatory and the final book will be set in heaven. Like all of his characters, Madison Spencer, the fat, dead teenage girl protagonist, is really a version Palahniuk himself, but with all the particulars reversed: "I wanted to make the character as different from myself as possible, instead of writing a book about a middle aged man mourning the death of his parents." Madison, in the afterlife, is mourning the loss of her own 'predead' parents.
The critics may have gone cold, but Palahniuk has some really dedicated fans
The gig at White Heat was actually a last minute addition to the tour, organised to cope with the overflow after a technical error allowed the Foyles event to book an audience two times larger than capacity. Most of the tour dates have now sold out and the people I spoke to in the queue were massive fans who had read pretty much every novel. In the Q&A, one questioner explained that she was writing her PhD on Palahniuk's oeuvre, while another expressed his fear of reading Invisible Monsters Remix as the original had meant so much to him.
Palahniuk likes to think of himself as a romance author
And there we were thinking it was all about blood and jizz. Palahniuk describes his novels as "contemporary romances", modelled on the classic love story. "There has to be a quest where something has to be killed; violence has to occur before the love can be consummated or completed, or even expressed," he explains. So all the death and depravity is there to make the underlying romance palatable? "Isn't it always?"
And he is equally dedicated to his fans
He writes thousands of individual responses to his fan mail, often putting together boxes of gifts that include cuddly toys, joke shop vomit and severed fingers. In the audience at White Heat, one fan thanks Chuck for the box he sent him 18 months ago, but complains that the green glitter it was filled with is still being found in the corners of his living room today.
Fight Club part two is coming soon
It started out as a short story that became a novel and then a film, but now it will return in the form of a graphic novel. Why did he decide that the story would be best told in this way? "It wasn't my idea," he explains. Thriller writer Chelsea Cain, who features on the US Adult Bedtime Stories tour, introduced him to graphic artists from comics publishers Marvel, DC and White Horse. They plan to put out a series of graphic novels that catch up with Jack and Marla ten years on, narrated by the returned Tyler Durden. Many consider Palahniuk's star to be in decline; with recent work failing to excite critics. Murmurings that he is actually overrated are unlikely to be quelled by a cartoon rehashing of his first, most celebrated work.
Chuck's novels seem to foretell details of his parents' deaths
Choke tells the story of Victor Mancini, a sex-addict who lures strangers into an exploitative scheme in order to pay for his dying mother Ida's care. It's a comedy, but it was hard for Chuck to see the funny side during the film adaptation's promo tour, as by then he was caring for his own mother who was dying of cancer. In Fight Club, the maniac Tyler Durden burns down Jack's flat and office, murdering his boss, and Project Mayhem involves planting bombs across the city. Palahniuk's own father was murdered along with his new girlfriend by her jealous ex-husband. He shot them and then burned their bodies. The murderer claimed in prison that he had planted bombs across Washington and that unless he was released, they would go off. Spooked by these 'predictions', Chuck's sister has banned him from writing any stories about her.
If your life is perfectly clean and contented, you will live to regret it
Have you got your shit together? Is your life stable, safe and happy? Well then you are missing out. For Chuck, fucking and fucking up is how we "discover and invent ourselves" and you need to take risks and fail in order to understand who you are and what you are capable of. People who lean neat, polite lives have failed to challenge themselves and will end up regretting it: "When they see people who do have those messy, dirty lives, on some level they hate them, because they realise that they themselves should be doing something like that."
Palahniuk had never been in a fight when he wrote Fight Club
This fascination with undiscovered potential spawned the Fight Club philosophy. "I had never been in a fight and I wanted to see what it was about, what I was capable of – could I endure it?" And has he been in a fight since? "No, but in San Francisco - recently, like three months ago – a guy jumped up on stage and hit me really hard. It's not really a fight, but it hurt a lot." So now he knows, at least, what it's like to be hit in the face. Is he glad the guy did it? "I have the story," he grins.
He's proved that he can make you faint, but now he wants to make you cry
He might have been punched once, but Palahniuk has a triple-figure tally of the number of audience members who have blacked-out at his readings. The usual culprit is a short story called Guts, a tale of masturbatory misadventure so graphic and gory it makes listeners physically sick. But the tale he tells tonight, Zombies, a short story that was printed in the November issue of Playboy, is a weepy that "makes people's boyfriends cry". It involves college kids using DIY lobotomies to opt out of their anxious, over-educated existence. Their lives become blissful: "They have smoking hot bodies and the brains of infants." Tempted by such happy oblivion, the story's protagonist finds himself on the edge, but he is greeted by literal networks of all-American support, beautiful singing and global love. My eyes were dry, but all the hippy sentiment just might just make you sick.
He doesn't care if you hate his work
But he does cheerily invite you to piss on his grave if you do. For Chuck, it's not important for people to like your work, the goal is for it to be memorable. Fight Club was rejected many times before finally finding a publisher and being sold to the movies. People weren't ready for it, Palahniuk explains, but it shocked them so much that they remembered it when the time was right. In the cynical, snarky times that we inhabit, are heartwarming tales of love and community like Zombies the next frontier? Are hippy, happy endings what we have to expect from Palahniuk now? "Oh no," he says. "Beautiful You [out next year and gleefully billed as 'gonzo erotica'] has... Not a happy ending. It has a horrible ending... The worst."
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