In 1996, Norton published a first novel called Fight Club, written by a machine-shop mechanic from Portland, Oregon named Chuck Palahniuk. A brilliant, lurid, black-hearted farce, stylish and gleefully offensive, Fight Club was at once highly entertaining and of notable literary merit, and left one highly intrigued as to what this writer would come up with next. In the four years since, Palahniuk has proved to be more like Barbara Cartland than anyone could have guessed, publishing three more novels — Invisible Monsters, Survivor, and the just-published Choke, which is what brought him to L.A. on a recent tour.
The new novel’s sex-addicted protagonist cruises support groups for partners, works days in a historical theme park, and supplements his income with a complicated con routine that involves willfully choking on food in fancy restaurants in order to be Heimliched by wealthy patrons, all of whom seem to take it upon themselves to send him gifts of cash on a regular basis. The funds are required to pay the nursing-home expenses for his aging mother, who may or may not be able to confirm that her son is indeed the Second Coming.
Palahniuk’s trademark themes are familiar by now. While serious about fiction, he’s essentially a comedian, his novels like routines or set pieces: Choke is about sexual compulsion the way Fight Club is about violence, and the way Survivor is about religion. He delights in the blackest of all black comedy — if you can handle the nursing-home tooth-flossing scene in Choke, then you have a sense of humor that probably warrants a clinical diagnosis. It’s a perverse surprise, then, that Palahniuk the man — who met me in the lobby of the Hotel Sofitel — is a remarkably sweet-spoken creature, earnest, almost naive and driven by an inexplicable desire to please.
“That was one thing that David Fincher impressed on me,” he says, referring to the director who turned Fight Club into a movie. “I’d always thought it was a big popularity contest, and the more people that liked you the better. And David said no, it’s about doing what you do really well and serving the people who enjoy your work really well, and screw everybody else. I’d never thought about it that way.” An odd thing for a literary author to glean from Hollywood, but then, Palahniuk is odd.
He looks around the hotel lobby. “I’m wondering, is it hard to write in Los Angeles? I couldn’t imagine writing anything down here, with the sun and everything going on around you. In Portland, you can pretend that the world goes to bed when you do, and that nothing is happening when you’re doing your writing. And also it’s easy to pretend that no one’s ever going to see your writing, so you can write from that place where anything is possible. Mom’s not going to see it, Granny’s not going to see it, nobody. I can put down anything I want!”
Palahniuk grew up in the small town of Burbank in eastern Washington, where his dad was a brakeman on the Burlington Northern. He claims rural life as the source of his apoplectically grim world-view. “My grandfather would always buy day-old calves, because they were really cheap, you could find them at auction. But they were really risky, because they could get ‘scours’ very easily, which is basically dysentery, and you’d be out there with 50 tiny dying calves, trying to feed them all at once, trying to keep them alive so you can kill them later.” He laughs. “And people say, ‘Why is your world so dark?’”
Palahniuk was raised a Catholic, but says, “I’m convinced that we were sent to church with my grandmother just so my parents could have sex in other rooms of the house. Mostly they fought, but when we came back from church, the whole house would smell like sex and they’d still be sliding against each other in the kitchen like cats and calling each other honey and dear. And why is there baby oil all over the TV? That’s why I’m Catholic, so my parents could have variety.” He shrugs. “Works for me.”
Palahniuk’s parents later divorced, but the darkness didn’t stop there. A couple of years ago, right around the release of the movie version of Fight Club, Palahniuk received a call from the publicist working on his books saying, “This may be a joke, but you need to call the sheriff’s department in Moscow, Idaho — they found your father’s car, and they found a body.”
“This woman my father was dating had run a personal ad in a newspaper, and my father had answered it,” says Palahniuk, “and he didn’t realize that she had a violent ex-husband who had sworn that if he ever saw her with another man he would kill them both. On their third date, my father was bringing her home, and the ex-husband was waiting in the driveway and shot them, and burned their bodies in her house to cover the evidence.”
Palahniuk tells the story demurely, without a hint of pain. “The big reason I can be so almost flip or glib about my dad is that last summer . . .” He pauses to regroup. “I have some friends who own a big farm in Scappoose that Portland State University documented in the ’70s as the most haunted place in the whole Pacific Northwest — videotapes of lights turning themselves off, pounding in the walls, names being called, completely bizarre paranormal physical activity — and they asked me if I would house-sit. As soon as they were gone, I called all my friends and said, ‘Bring wine!’
“So we had a séance. My friend Tammy brought these two women who were, like, licensed psychics. We were all sitting around the dining-room table a little drunk, and these women turned to me and they said, ‘There’s a man with you at all times, and he said his name is Fred.’ I thought, aw, they read that in the paper. And then they said, ‘He’s really sorry about what he did when you were 8 years old. We see you kneeling down next to a chopping block, and you’re waiting to be dismembered, and your father is standing over you . . .’ and they started telling me a story that I have never told anybody.
“When I was 8, I got into my father’s tool chest and I got my finger stuck in a great big machine washer. I waited all day until my finger was black and swollen, and I finally went to my dad, and he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to do stupid things, you’re going to have to pay the price, and you’d better learn it now.’ We spent the afternoon sharpening the ax while he lectured me on this, and I put my hand down on the chopping block, and I just got really clear: This was the moment I grew up. From then on, I was going to be responsible for everything in my life, I wasn’t going to blame anything on anybody. This was going to be it. There was no drama, no crying. In fact, I remember thinking Dad was doing me a huge favor by doing this. And then he missed my hand with the ax, and we went inside and got it off with soap and water.”
He laughs with relief, even now. “Of course I knew the story would shorten my parents’ marriage by years,” he says, “so I never told a soul, not even my siblings. So to have these total strangers telling the story back to me . . .” He shudders. “And then they said, ‘Your father is incredibly happy now, he’s happier than he’s ever been in his whole life.’ I started chugging the wine at that point. But now I don’t feel nearly so bad about it.”
Given his inadvertent overexposure to the macabre, it’s hardly a surprise that Palahniuk’s fifth book, Lullaby, will be a takeoff on the horror genre (with humor of course), and is the first of three such genre novels he’s contracted to write for Doubleday. “The idea is to take it so far away from the genre that it’s literary fiction, but it’s just literary fiction that happens to be really, really scary and disgusting.” He says this with ill-concealed glee.
CHOKE | By CHUCK PALAHNIUK
Doubleday | 294 pages | $25 hardcover