- Surviving American Culture:On Chuck Palahniuk
In an age in which American culture has become the United States' number one export, along with its weapons, low intensity conflict, carcinogenic cigarettes, its "freedom," and pornography, it is delightful and even a sign of hope that there are writers who have taken on the delicate and perilous task of offering a prognosis of what ails this culture. In the following essay I argue that Chuck Palahniuk's works ought to be read as a mortician's report on American culture. Chuck Palahniuk broke into the literary world by way of the movie version of his first novel: Fight Club (1995). He has gone on to write six other novels: Survivor (1999), Invisible Monsters (2000), Choke (2001), Lullaby (2002), and Diary (2003). He also has published an interesting travel book, Fugitives and Refugees; A Walk in Portland, Oregon (2003), but since this is not properly fiction, I will not discuss it in this essay.1
Clearly, Palahniuk has already produced a corpus worthy of careful consideration and analysis. Yet, as a west coast writer, far from the literary circles and brokers of the east coast, indeed far away from the clubs of self-promotion and self-monitoring that censure and hold in tight grip the monopoly of criticism that highlights "worthy literature," Palahniuk has not attracted a lot of critical attention. It is only with his most recent work Choke that he has began to be widely reviewed and commented on. In the following I provide a thematic reconstruction of each one of the six published novels, in chronological sequence. I will argue that Palahniuk is not trying to write the "great American novel," although he is profiling himself as a quintessential "American" writer in the midst of post–Cold War megalomania and celebrated Pax Americana. He has taken on a culture that has become so gargantuan, [End Page 394] fragmented, and differentiated but at the same time so rich, so self-reflexive, so historicized and also so mimicked that one novel cannot tell its story in one narrative with one dramatic thread. Many novels, many short cuts, many vignettes, are necessary: one polyphonic, asynchronous, temporally bi-directional, hyper-textual, and cyber-encyclopedic novel made up of individual novels, where each novel is the Bildungsroman of an American hero but told in reverse. These heroes, I will argue, are testimonies to the resilient power of individuals to resist even the most invasive and persistent onslaughts by culture on the physic life of freedom and individuality. I will also argue that he is neither a commercial nor academic writer; that is, he is not the kind of writer who writes either in order to maintain a living or secure tenure. He is a writer with a mission, a vision, and a very distinctive style. The stories that Palahniuk tells are stories that begin at the end, and end at the beginning: they are turned around Bildungsromans. They are, in other words, about unmaking, uncoupling, and disentangling our selves from the normal self into which we have been socialized. These stories are, thus, about the discovery of moral resources that lay dormant in the very simplicity of human solidarity and trust in our will to survive morally untainted, or at least redeemable. I will conclude by arguing that Palahniuk's novels are about surviving American Culture, and about how deviance is the health of the individual in a sick society.
One could characterize Fight Club as the intelligent man's response to Robert Bly's Iron John (1990),2 or the fictionalized version of the Michael Kimmel's Manhood in America: A Cultural History (1996).3 Alternatively, one could argue that Fight Club is the fin-de-sieclé response to Barbara Ehrenreich's prognosis in her The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983) of 1970s and 1980s narcissistic and hedonistic masculinity.4 Chuck Palahniuk's first novel is a biting and poignant look at men in American culture after the end of affluence and the simultaneous "feminization" of masculinity. It is at the same time about the struggle for a viable sense of masculinity in an age in...