There is one quality shared by both fans and critics: Neither group is completely wrong or completely right when it comes to judging a work. I thought of that repeatedly this month when I dove into a crash course of Chuck Palahniuk studies to prepare for an on-stage interview with the author at an event promoting his new novel, Pygmy.
I liked his first novel, Fight Club, when I read it 10 years ago. I thought it was relentlessly smart, with subtle, painful barbs hidden under its broader strokes. Later, as a reviewer, I had to admit that Rant, his novel about car crashes, rabies and time travel, puzzled the hell out of me. Pygmy, however, is a very simple story both campy and terrifying, covering the same ironic, paranoid terrain as The Manchurian Candidate. Of course, positive or negative criticism hasn't affected Palahniuk's ability to publish in the last decade, as he has those rarest of things to a living writer: fans.
"They're not fans. They're readers," Palahniuk would correct me on stage.
Look online and you'll find stories of eight-hour road trips to catch Palahniuk's famously involved readings, which are more like Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings, with costume contests and giveaways of inflatable tchotchkes. I knew taking the assignment would be interesting just for the chance to eye Palahniuk's fans up close. I didn't realize that by hurtling inflatable penguins into an audience, as I would end up doing, I'd come to a deeper understanding of a misunderstood writer.
Palahniuk may be that most unique of American archetypes - a formally adventurous cult writer with sales - but critics still attempt to review his books as if they were normal. This often reduces a reviewer to writing 1,000-word tsk-tsks. Here's Lucy Ellman in The New York Times on 2008's Snuff, a not-so-farfetched novel about a porn actress's attempt to break the world's record for having sex with the most men at once:
"What the hell is going on? The country that produced Melville, Twain and James now venerates King, Crichton, Grisham, Sebold and Palahniuk. Their subjects? Porn, crime, pop culture and an endless parade of out-of-body experiences."
And in the end:
"This is no celebration of a field in which America excels - the hatching of new vocabulary - but an exercise in deadening the English language. Johnny One-Note, this book is shooting blanks. Alienation is soooooo 20th century."
As I said, critics are never completely correct. No matter whether Snuff is a good book or not, the only thing more revealing of Ellman's snob anxiety than lumping the disparate writings of Melville, Twain and James together in the equation of dead equals good is lumping Sebold, Palahniuk and Grisham together into the equation of sales equals bad. Especially puzzling is Ellman's inclusion of Mark Twain, who, having written frothy rants of increasing bluntness over his life, would have seen a kindred polemicist in Palahniuk. Twain's final story, The War Prayer, is practically a proto-Dead Kennedys song. Also, he was one of the first American writers to have a fan base while alive. But then, as I said, fans are never completely correct either.
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"I've been here since 11 a.m.," the girl in the front row said to her friend as I stood nearby in the stage wing, figuring out the order of the evening with the event organizers.
Even if you're a casual reader of Palahniuk, you'll notice this attention may be at odds with the author's philosophical concerns. After all, Fight Club is, among other things, about the dangers of group identity. The film adaptation may mislead you with its semi-happy ending but the book presents its narrator for what he is: an anarchist Werner Erhard, a manipulator so shrewd his personality has split in two. The fame engendered by the less subtle film must be a complex negotiation for Palahniuk, who wrote eloquently about the woeful misinterpretation of his debut novel in the essay Monkey Think, Monkey Do .
Still standing in the wings, I watched the sold-out room fill up and glimpsed at least two boys wearing the raincoat and aviator glasses ensemble worn by Brad Pitt in the film of Fight Club. I looked at my notes and moved my back-up Hail Mary question ("Let's talk about your fans") to the top.
Perturbed by an endless stream of waiters confessing to him that they, like his characters, urinate in soup when angry, Palahniuk wrote in Monkey Think, Monkey Do that reacting against those who you think control your life isn't the same as taking responsibility for your life. While the reader of Fight Club and Pygmy has a rollicking time as its characters prank and trick their way through the weeds of capitalism - Palahniuk is a some-time member of absurdist performance art gang, the Cacophony Society - the potential for this to be the same fuel source for devastating violence is never ignored. While I truly wondered if the two Brad Pitts in the audience could ever glean that argument, I wasn't too worried about the rest of the audience members, who seemed, like myself, common geek folk. Yet one could feel the intense identification, like heat, as Palahniuk came out on stage. What did he think of these fans that enabled him to survive critical lashings, write more or less what he wants, but whose adulation also presented him with an ethical quandary as an artist? Less secure souls facing even bigger crowds (I'm thinking of Kurt Cobain) have snapped at the question.
The first rule of a Chuck Palahniuk night is that the author runs the show. There are no preambles or thanks to the sponsors. He comes out reading and throwing. As he later tells us, he spends months beforehand signing hundreds of inflatable objects (on a previous tour it was sex dolls, this time, penguins). In-between readings, these are thrown to the audience members, who are then challenged to blow them up as fast as possible. There are prizes.
In the midst of this I went on-stage for the interview, absolutely unsure what would happen. As a competent arts journalist, I decided to ask the obvious: "When did you cast your first inflatable?"
Penguins, as silly as they are, are no cheap trick. As Palahniuk explained onstage, one day at a stop in Denver he decided the physical act of throwing crap out would not only alleviate the grind of promotional touring, it would result in accidental art. His first throwaways were tiaras from Claire's Accessories. "There were skinheads in tiaras walking around Denver that night," he told us. It's an interesting mirror Palahniuk creates. The audience members think they have a signed souvenir, but as they walk around with the same object as 60 or so other people, the fetish takes a fan's identification with the author and transfers it back to himself or herself.
Not having fun with the absurdity of fame, I've now figured out, is what killed Kurt Cobain. Well, that and heroin.
In-between questions, the penguin tossing continued, with me taking part and failing somewhat miserably. "I'm sorry I throw like a liberal arts major," I lamented to the audience.
During our Q&A, a generous and witty Palahniuk came back to Flannery O'Connor several times. What at first seems like an odd connection - he being the avatar of percussive minimalism, she of florid, wigged-out adjectives - does make sense. Like Palahniuk, O'Connor's irony and violence were steeped in ethics. In Palahniuk's work, Catholic morality is swapped for existentialism's notion of responsibility.
That responsibility, to fans and to his own ideas, is brought onto the stage by Palahniuk through - yes - the medium of inflatable penguins. This became apparent only after the event was over and I walked through downtown Toronto around 9:30 p.m. Dozens of people holding large inflated penguins worked their way through the streets, causing no small amount of out-loud speculation in passersby about the sudden popularity of plastic flightless birds.
Good art is like that - absurd, weird, and plain meaningless until we bring meaning to it. That it's also good promotion just makes Palahniuk more interesting.
Brian Joseph Davis is a writer in Toronto and a co-founder of the Joyland blog.