At least once every year, a debut short-story collection comes along and gets under my skin. Last year, it was Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare, by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, and the year before that, it was Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma. All these months later, despite reading thousands of pages since, I can still remember plot details from individual stories in those books.

In 2024, that collection is Beautiful Days, by Zach Williams—a subtle and speculative barn-burner that fans of Stephen King and Ling Ma will devour. Like the short fiction of Brian Evenson, the stories in Beautiful Days are about the horrors of encountering something completely unknowable in the course of everyday life, whether it’s the mind-warping experience of parenthood or the echo-chamber effect of the Internet and social media.

It opens with “Trial Run,” in which a Manhattan office drone is trapped in a skyscraper during a snowstorm that may or may not be real, with two coworkers who may or may not mean him harm. In “Neighbors,” which went viral in The New Yorker earlier this year, a San Francisco man tries to perform a wellness check on his next-door neighbor, only to stumble upon a scene he can’t rationally explain.

In “Wood Sorrel House,” new parents find themselves in an Edenic setting to raise their child but can’t remember how they got there. These stories wade into uncanny waters gradually, but others—like “Return to Crashaw,” featuring tourists who visit mysterious megaliths in the desert—embrace their pulp inspirations from line one.

Despite Stephen King’s You Like It Darker sitting on top of the New York Times bestseller list right now, some people in the American publishing industry see short stories as an endangered species—or at least as a genre that’s becoming harder and harder to sell. “I was writing for myself,” Williams tells Esquire. “I wasn’t thinking about the marketability of what I was writing. I was just thinking of what I could write best—and what I could finish.”

Williams grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, earned his MFA at NYU, and now teaches fiction writing at Stanford University. Over Zoom last month, we spoke about writing short stories in an industry built to sell novels, getting fired from a Hollywood job for reading books under his desk, and why you might be reading more short stories than you realize. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: When did reading and writing first come into your life?

ZACH WILLIAMS: Video games were big for me in that regard. Myst and Riven were so immersive that I read the [spin-off] novels. Tim Schafer [game director of Grim Fandango] was also a really important writer for me. But I loved going to the library as a kid and reading Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—and all those Time Life supernatural mystery books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster.

When I tried writing short stories in my early twenties, I think I just fundamentally didn’t have anything to write about, so when I graduated college, I moved out to L.A. and got an internship at Beacon Pictures. I got fired because all the interns showed up at this party one night where we weren’t supposed to be. After that, I worked as an assistant to the post-production coordinator on this Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony movie called El Cantante, and then I was the fifth assistant in Jerry Bruckheimer’s office during the Pirates of the Caribbean shoot—until I got fired for reading books under my desk when there wasn’t anything to do.

I got the sense that I wasn’t in the right place, so I taught middle and high school for twelve years. It was a lot like Mr. Holland’s Opus, where it was supposed to be this brief interlude while I figured out how to be a writer, but I did it for a long time and could only write in fits and starts. Once I got married and we had our first son, I finally felt like I’d been around long enough to write stories with a sense of urgency.

What drew you to short stories as opposed to novels?

In middle school, the only book I would ever reread was The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. The idea of a novel-in-stories was really fascinating to me. A lot of my undergraduate creative-writing classes were focused on short stories just by virtue of the workshop format. For me, short stories have this very direct relationship with the subconscious. One idea that’s really exciting for a writer is usually enough to get a short story off the ground. Even the stories in this collection that I worked on for years, they all originated with one spark. I wrote two stories in [Beautiful Days], “Red Light” and “Neighbors,” right after these nights of terrible insomnia, where I was just lying in bed for hours and the ideas just erupted from my subconscious. They didn’t need to become sprawling projects.

Publishing a short story in The New Yorker is a holy grail for a lot of writers. What was that like for you?

It was a wild experience to have that be my first time in print. At NYU’s [MFA program], they have this agent meet-and-greet at the end of the year, and mine was virtual because of the pandemic. I wound up having a call with Claudia [Ballard at William Morris Endeavor], and she asked to see one of my stories after I gave her my elevator pitch for the collection. I sent her “Wood Sorrel House,” and she said right away, “I want to send this story to The New Yorker.” I signed with Claudia that summer, and then the editorial process at The New Yorker was unbelievable. Working with Deborah [Treisman] and her fact checkers and copy editors was a real education. They found all of these things in the story that I had lost the ability to see myself.

It must be hard to fact-check a story like “Wood Sorrel House,” which is set in another reality.

My favorite thing that came out of fact-checking “Wood Sorrel House”—I still think about it with such gratitude—is that outside the cottage in that story, there’s one of those turtle-shaped sandboxes. We have so much overlap in our background; is that a familiar thing from your childhood, too?

Yes, we had one in our backyard.

Perfect. So I had written that it was made by Playskool because that’s what I remembered, but no, they were made by Little Tikes. The fact checker discovered this, and I was so thrilled to get that correction.

Which story in this collection was the hardest to write and revise?

“Lucca Castle” was really difficult, and the other two that come to mind are “Ghost Image” and “Return to Crashaw.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I started things without knowing how long they were going to be. Every single story was a learning process for me. There is very little in this book that I did on purpose, because I was trying to write intuitively.

Why open the collection with “Trial Run” and close with “Return to Crashaw”?

There were times when I would try to think of this book like an album. I thought about how the stories sounded together in a musical way. “Return to Crashaw” just felt like an ending in the sound of the sentences and the language—and the way that there’s music on that last page. There’s also a sort of warmth to that story for me, whereas “Trial Run” is the total opposite. It’s dark and scary and claustrophobic and paranoid. I’ve always had “Trial Run” up front because there’s something about walking into that building in the snowstorm that felt like the start of something, in the same way that the music at the end of “Return to Crashaw” felt like an ending to me.

How can the short story make a case for itself in 2024? Big Five publishers have disinvested in short stories as a genre, and it seems like readers prefer novels.

So many of the best books I’ve read recently have been short-story collections or novels-in-stories. Jamil Jan Kochai’s collection from 2022, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, has one of the all-time great short stories about video games in it. There’s also Out There, by Kate Folk; Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma; After the Sun, by Jonas Eika. Jonathan Escoffery’s book If I Survive You is fascinating to me, because it’s somewhere between a collection of linked stories and a novel. Cuddy, by Benjamin Myers, is told in four sections over the span of many centuries, around the building of this cathedral where St. Cuthbert’s body is buried. Other huge books for me in this regard are Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan.

My point is that some of the most exciting work I’ve seen in recent years comes from people who are working in shorter forms to different ends. A lot of them are technically short-story collections, but they don’t really make aesthetic sense without one another. My sense of these books is that the stories were written very intentionally to be part of one work, and I think that makes so much sense in our present moment. I could say something banal about attention spans, but it’s more than that. There’s something about the form of short stories and life on the Internet, scrolling and clicking, and the basic hypertextual experience of navigating the Internet. A book can contain many different worlds, too, without staying too long in one place.

It’s a vital time for the form. It’s equipped to do something that the big novel can’t, and there are a lot of writers doing really good work. But I’m not that smart about the necessities of the marketplace. I don’t know enough about how publishing works.

I think you’ve hit on something really interesting about the marketplace, though, which is that publishers are sometimes packaging (or maybe even disguising) short-story collections as novels-in-stories—and marketing long short stories as short novels!—in the hope that they’ll sell more copies.

I hadn’t quite connected those dots, but yeah, you’re right. There are a lot of books people are reading that contain these other forms.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is often celebrated as the greatest novel of the century so far, but it’s essentially a collection of very long linked stories.

That’s true. I just read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories for the first time a few years ago. The stories are all really different, but there’s this one repeating character who’s a dark and powerful figure. To me, there’s something really special and unique about the ability of a book that contains disparate things to link them in a way that strikes more than one note. When I was writing this book, I wanted to be aggressive about the variety of ideas that appeared in it. I wanted to just throw ideas out recklessly rather than take one thing and use it as the basis for a longer project just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. I wanted it to be a little riotous. A lot of my favorite collections of stories—or as you said, novels that contain a lot of little worlds—are doing that.

Why call this collection Beautiful Days?

The title comes from the story “Wood Sorrel House,” where the last line is “There will be beautiful days.” I had a different experience writing the book than people do reading it, because when I look at that story again, I feel like there’s a lot of prettiness in that story—the pastoral aspect of it with the lake and the forest and the mountains, and then also the bond between parent and child. There’s a lot of darkness in that story, but there’s some beauty in it, too.

I knew that I was writing a book with a lot of darkness in it, and one that was cynical in places. I started writing the stories when I was living in New York, so maybe there’s some of that big-city claustrophobia or paranoia, especially in “Trial Run.” I also think some of it comes from life on the Internet and being constantly glued to our devices, where my phone feels like a portal to a darker reality.

But all of these characters are trying to figure something out. They feel like they desperately need answers to big questions and they can’t get them, but they’re going to try—and in the trying, I think there’s a lot of hopefulness and redemption. These impenetrable mysteries are how the basic conditions of life feel to me. That’s what speculative fiction can do: help you set your sights more clearly on questions that are concrete in your life.

Originally published on Esquire US


Geoffrey Mak is no stranger to excess. For several years, the Chinese American art critic lived in Berlin on and off, enjoying the city’s rave culture, its queer scene, and a wide variety of drugs. He attended glamorous art fairs and openings, parties thrown by artist collectives and trend forecasters, and worked at becoming a writer. He recognised the fact, though, that within the rarefied social circles he frequented, he and others were all playing types. “I was never sure which side of the counterculture I was expected to perform,” he writes in his new essay collection, Mean Boys: A Personal History, “art critic, ad man from New York, technogoth turning looks at the club, or a foot fetishist with a kink for golden showers. I just knew that once I located my role, my ‘character,’ it was important to deviate as little as possible.”

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mak experienced his second psychotic breakdown in the span of three years, then flew back to his parents’ home in California to get help and try to heal. Yet the psychiatrists he saw couldn’t help much—they weren’t sure how to diagnose him due to his drug use. “As a junkie,” Mak writes, “I was hard for psychiatrists to take seriously, so in turn I didn’t take them seriously.” His life slowed down from the 120-140 beats per minute that characterise techno to a far more sedate pace that felt more like boredom than peace. But when Mak began attending Alcoholics Anonymous, things started to change, and he found in the programme a different kind of intensity—one that helped him. He also began to find his way back to Christianity, which he’d grown up around (his father is a minister) but had abandoned due to the evangelical persecution of LGBTQ+ people. Amid that return, he also took on a frightening project: reading and writing about the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista killings.

Mak Zoomed with Esquire to discuss how he wrote Mean Boys, the complexity of empathy, returning to his faith, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: In your author’s note, you share that you had an audience in mind when writing these essays—your friends. Friendship and its complexity is also a recurring motif within the book. What did writing for your friends allow you to do or feel as you wrote?

GEOFFREY MAK: I think writing to friends guarantees an intimacy in the very premise of the work. When you’re writing to a friend, you often want to please them, make them laugh, or interest them. Friendship is as difficult as any kind of relationship. Sometimes with the writing, I was trying to comfort; sometimes I was trying to entertain; sometimes I was trying to win back or draw someone closer to me. That’s not always the case; there are so many ways to write.

You might write to be understood or celebrated. Of course I want those things too, but I think what I really hope for is intimacy. There’s a very radical and kinky intimacy that I can have with complete strangers [through the writing]. I started a lot of these essays as Facebook notes, and I never thought they would be in a book. Now there are all these strangers reading these pieces of writing I’ve done over the years. I think it’s really cool.

One of the main threads of the book’s title essay, “Mean Boys,” is the psychology of the mass shooter. You do a close reading of the Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and come to empathise with him—you never condone his actions or claim to understand them, but you empathise with aspects of his frustration, anger, and angst. What was it like, taking on this project?

Difficult. When I started writing “Mean Boys,” I didn’t know where it was going. I started with very simple pattern recognition: I saw a Lacoste logo in radically different places [such as photos of Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik] and I wondered, Why? I thought it was going to be a short essay where I just wrote about that.

And then one thing led to another, and Rodger came into the essay. We were almost the same age, and I remembered the story so intensely. I was like, Well, I can’t write about Rodger if I don’t read the manifesto. But then when I read it, there was a major discovery, which was that Rodger cared about status more than he cared about sex. I realised I needed to drop everything I was doing and follow the thread. He was just obsessed with being popular. The discovery for me was that status is not the same thing as class and identity. Rodger was half white, so he had that privilege; he was also a trust-fund kid with a lot of inherited wealth, so he had class privilege. But it didn’t translate into status. His life’s wound was that it didn’t happen the way he was told it was supposed to happen. When I discovered this, I needed to redo the whole essay.

What was your reasoning for titling the book Mean Boys?

Early on in the “Mean Boys” essay, I was writing about my brother, who’s a little bit shy and has a lot of social anxiety but is always cracking jokes. I write about him and his high school cohort and that wonderfully bitchy line where he was like, The only reason why you got elected to student government is because you’re my brother. It’s probably true! When I showed him the part about him for the first time, he was like, This is so interesting—you’re writing about mean girls except they’re mean boys. From then onward, I knew that needed to be the title. As I was working through the essays, the title took on a life of its own. I was thinking of how “mean boys” codes as queer, and how when Elliot Rodger uses the term, it’s referring to the bullies at school.

I think the “mean boy” is kind of a sexual figure. It’s complicated, and throughout the book, I’m trying to mine these sometimes queer or sadomasochistic forms of desire that are an extension of violence but also protect us from violence. Who the mean boys [of the book] are is kind of up for debate. One of my friends read it and then said to me, “I don’t think there are any mean boys in here.” Another friend said, “I think there’s only one mean boy in the book and it’s you.” What he meant is that the mean boy gets to write about everything, brings out all of these flaws in other people, and gets to have the final say.

You said the term “mean boys” is queer coded, and I agree, but—why, actually? What about it is coded queer?

The surface reading is that I take the title from Mean Girls, this beloved comedy of just bitchy girls at the lunch table, and imagine bitchy boys there instead. That’s a kind of queering. But for queer men—I think when we’re boys, we grow up attracted to something that is also physically dangerous. Maybe this is going to change in upcoming generations. I obviously didn’t go to school during the era of marriage equality, so when I was young, I desired boys, and if that desire was known, I could get beaten up, ridiculed, shoved into a locker. Desire was never divorced from fear and danger, so these were braided intensely together at a young age.

I mean, it’s mysterious how these things work, but that primal memory of wanting something that I’m afraid of.... [In the book] I write about sadomasochistic fantasies and queer intimacy later in life, and these things have a long lineage and a long life in one’s imagination and fantasies, and to restage childhood feelings of desire in the bedroom is a way of confronting it. But yeah, I do think the title “Mean Boys” makes me think of high school and the locker room and watching boys undress before PE and being so terrified that they would catch me looking.

So-called mean boys have the cachet that allows them to be mean without suffering social or status-related consequences. Do mean boys have an outsize effect on culture?

The looming mean boy over all these essays is Trump. Trump was so distressing to me: watching him wield power in this way, exerting and reinforcing power through meanness. The whole world was watching this! When a child sees things, the child repeats it—were we all going to repeat this? Was this going to be a new age of cruelty?

I do think that mean boys—some of whom aren’t even male—do kind of control the culture. With the art-world section in the title essay, I wanted to really counteract that in a way. I looked at people who are in power in this world, such as Wolfgang Tillmans or Anne Imhof or this anonymous artist that I call L, and I drew out moments of generosity in their portrayals, trying to depict a kind of power that didn’t rely on meanness, that brought out and reinforced generosity.

Sometimes we write an ideal that doesn’t yet exist, but once we write it, it does exist, and then it shapes the world. I think capitalism conditions us to think that this is the only reality, that we’re all in competition and we’re all climbing a ladder and we have to kick down the people beneath us. I think human nature is not inherently a scarcity mindset, not inherently competitive, not inherently greedy. I think it’s inherently generous, and I wanted to bring out those moments in some of these portraits.

You mentioned Rodger’s obsession with status, and in “Mean Boys” you articulate the complexity of that idea—how it’s impossible to prove or describe, but it’s nevertheless felt and acknowledged and recognised. You realise that the problem of status is political but has no political solution. How do you think we should deal with it—individually or collectively?

I think we need to talk about [status] as real. It was a painful, irreducible reality in Elliot Rodger’s life that really drove him to go where he went. Some people like to call [status] social capital, but it’s not a resource; there’s no gold standard of status. It’s unlike class and identity. It’s entirely relational, which makes it so chaotic, so slippery. But we need to start talking about it. We need to believe it’s real.

I’m always suspicious of someone who believes in the equitable distribution of identity, privilege, and capital, but they totally don’t believe in the equitable distribution of status. What if we lived our lives a little bit differently, attuned to the more equitable redistribution of status? I don’t know if that means Trump won’t get elected, but it’ll shape our personal lives. That’s all we can do. I present religion and art not as a solution but as a response to status. They don’t make the problem go away but respond to it on its own terms.

Another theme in the book is your slow return to Christianity but from a much more radical mindset than the Christianity you grew up with. Do you consider yourself a Christian now?

I do. I take it quite seriously. I don’t go to a church, but I have close Christian friends, some of whom are among the best theologians in the country. In Calvinism, there’s this concept of irresistible grace, where the grace is so urgent in your life that you just slide into it. It almost overpowers your will. It kind of felt like that [for me].

A couple of things happened. One, my father really just showed me what a Christian was capable of—the capacity for love, the refusal to close the book on what he was, who he was, and what he was capable of. This persistence of inquiry and learning and really radical humility. I mean, my father is so cool; if my father is this kind of person and he credits Christianity, then that’s something I want in my life. Second, I think most leftist radical queer people would like Christianity a lot if they simply found the right stuff. It’s actually out there: liberation theology, queer theology, the wacky stuff that ties together ancient early Christian apathetic theology with queer theory from the eighties and notions of the apocalypse with Lee Edelman’s No Future. I really gravitated to this stuff, and I found that I could find Christian traditions and theologies and histories and thinkers who grappled with the most important topics of my life.

Many of your essays revolve around the various kinds of excesses you took to when you were in Brooklyn and Berlin’s artistic milieus. Later, during your process of going through the AA steps, you come to appreciate the small mundanities—the beauty that can be found in paying attention to the same things over and over again, like the discovery to be found in the minor shifts of a techno loop. You hint at this coming change early in the book when you write that you found out “where the road of excess goes. It leads to nothing.” Clearly, your sensibilities changed over the years. How much of that was sobriety? How much was simply time passing?

Sobriety is a new way of looking at the world and also a reorientation of time. My sponsor, at the end of each day, would tell me to name three things I did that day for others. One of them was I always unloaded the dishes, period, with no expectation of reciprocation. It’s funny; it took Alcoholics Anonymous to teach me how to make my bed. I wasn’t somebody who did that, but my sponsor was like, You need to learn to make your bed every single morning. And I got into the habit, and now I do. These rituals that drove me really insane [at first] were a way of fastening attention onto the daily, the forgettable, the unremarkable.

Where do you feel that you are now in terms of your understanding of excess and mundanity? Do they have to be at odds?

I just finished this great book, With My Back to the World, a poetry collection by Victoria Chang, and it’s all about Agnes Martin’s paintings, which are just grids. I find these paintings devastatingly beautiful, and the collection is about how after the death of [Chang’s] father, she turns to these grids and finds freedom, love, and beauty in them.

I see [the simultaneity of excess and mundanity] in Agnes Martin’s paintings, like Night Sea. It’s this vast expanse of blue, and the grids are laid in gold foil. So you have this total indulgence and then complete austerity. I think this is a visual metaphor of many, many things in all of our lives. I think about the hours before my grandmother died, the hours I spent at her bedside, and I would feel so guilty checking my watch to see how much time had passed, because inadvertently I was asking, So when’s she going to die? I was bored out of my mind. It was excruciating; she wasn’t doing anything. But were those some of the most flagrantly beautiful and treasured hours of my life? Absolutely. No question about it.

Originally published on Esquire US

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I’d seen the word on social media. Mid. The show was mid. The song was mid. The rapper was mid. So many shows, songs, rappers and more are unknown to me, trees in the now-bewildering wilderness of pop culture that the young navigate effortlessly.

But I rapidly deduced that mid is not good. Mid is mediocre. Middle of the road. Meh.

And then I realised—I am mid.

The pandemic made my midness unavoidable. Until then, I could convince myself that I looked 10 years younger than I was, and looking good is halfway to feeling good. But in the Age of the Mask, my face of denial was shrouded. Suddenly all I saw were eyes. Nothing I did to my visage or hair could perform a trompe l’oeil and camouflage how my age was now inscribed in the lines and wrinkles around my eyes, underlined emphatically by a duo of bags that got heavier every year. The young, in contrast, showed off their youth effortlessly with the smooth and unblemished canvas framing their eyes. Every moment of fleeting eye contact with both young and old reminded me of the threat of mortal illness as well as the inevitable slow motion of ageing.

Funny how I trembled when I turned 40, more than a decade ago. How youthful 40 now seems. But I remind myself that at that middling age, when I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist, there was no published novel. I also had not wanted to be a father, that death sentence, yet that is what I became. When my son was born, my life, as I knew it, was over.

I was 42.

I had just finished the first draft of my novel, and my most important job was to watch over my son at night to make sure he lived. From late in the evening until 3am, I rewrote the novel while watching little Oedipus sleep in the same room, swaddled on the futon. Anytime he stirred, I stuck a bottle of formula in his mouth. From 3am until his mother took over childcare duty at 5am, I sipped my own formula—single malt Scotch—and wondered: Was I a failure? Was I ever going to publish this novel? Was I middle-aged? How does one know for sure?

Statistically, the average middle age for American men begins just past the mid-30s, since the average American male’s life span is 73.5 years of age. As a country, America can be considered rather mid, with the United States ranking below Albania and above Croatia. Hong Kong tops the charts at 83.2 years. Our average must be brought down by a daily drip of government-subsidised corn fructose and the lack of universal health care, as well as a toxic mix of economic inequality and depression, gun violence and opioids.

If I am statistically average, then I have been middle-aged for 15 years. I tell myself I am not afraid of Death. Easy to say until one sees the Great Funeral Director’s hand on the switch, ready to turn off one’s light. I will admit that with the shadow of mortality falling on my toes, I bought a sports car at the age of 43. A used grey Infiniti coupe with automatic transmission, the nicest car I had yet owned but far cheaper than a brand-new Honda Accord. Not a sports car by the definition of connoisseurs. Not a Corvette; not red. The car even had a back seat that could fit a car seat and my son.

Even my midlife crisis was mid.

I examined my son, destined to kill me and usurp me, at least symbolically. Cute little guy. Could he escape his destiny? Could I escape mine? Perhaps if I read him more books? Spent more time with him? Took him to more Little League baseball games? Thankfully, he quit baseball after a year, but then took up soccer with great enthusiasm. I bought him shin guards and cleats, watched him and his Neon Knights practise while I sat on a tattered beach chair, angling my umbrella to ward the sun off my pale legs. Was this happiness? Was this what a writer does?

The long middle of a story is the hardest part for me as a writer. The beginning, far in the past. The ending, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is good for a writer to be unaware of the conclusion. If the end startles the writer, it likely will surprise the reader, too.

Pssst—the hero dies.

I didn’t hear that.

I used to think that writing was a ticket to immortality. Who needed children when one’s progeny was one’s books? In my teens and early 20s, I longed for fame and glory. I didn’t think much about how the names of the immortals were relatively few, while libraries were filled with thousands of books by writers I had never heard of before, some of them quite famous in their time. And some authors whose names dominated only a decade or two ago are rarely mentioned today, now that their life force no longer animates the literary scene.

When it comes to literary fame—which is not really that famous—I have more than some authors and less than others. But whenever I am tempted to believe my own hype, I read my one-star reviews — Bafflingly overpraised! Absurdist and repulsive! Pure garbage!—and recall that I live not far from Hollywood. When I tell people in Los Angeles that I’m a writer—no one cares.

And if no one cares, why should I?

That seems to be the greatest freedom in being mid, at least for me. To be middle-aged is not necessarily to be mid, particularly if one feels that one is at the peak of one’s powers. But to acknowledge that one’s accomplishments, great or small, hardly matter to most people and may one day fade into the dust, rendering one mid or even forgotten—might that actually be liberating rather than depressing?

When I was younger, I cared very much what people thought of me and my work. Part of me, because I am human, still does. But an even greater part of me does not. I had an inkling of what it meant not to care when I wrote my first novel; I was already old for an aspiring novelist.

I had written a short-story collection while yearning for the attention of editors, publishers and agents. When I realised that the power brokers did not care about my book or middle-aged me, I was free. Not to care. To do exactly as I pleased. Because I was mid.

It’s hard not to care in your teens and 20s. But as I looked at my son, turning two, three, four, I saw how he was almost literally carefree, except for wondering if he would get all the toys and treats he wanted. But he also simply did not pay attention to rules, expectations, conventions. You’ll find out, I thought grimly. That’s the way life is.

And maybe he will submit to the borders of adulthood. But at five years of age, he wrote and drew his own comic book, Chicken of the Sea, about restless chickens who run off from the farm to become pirates under the command of a rat captain. I was amazed. I could never have come up with that story. Because I cared about things like reality. How realistic. And how limiting.

So in my mid years, I try not to give a damn about unimportant things and unimportant people. The important people—friends and family, children and partner—still concern me. Writing, too, because it remains my passion. After I publish a book, I do keep an eye on how it fares in the world, vulnerable as I am to desire and vanity. But in the midst of writing a book—the art is all that matters.

The result is that the stack of books I have authored grows little by little, outnumbering my children in quantity. But never in height. Or weight. Or even, perhaps, in quality. If you had told me, in my youth, that I would be a father and love fatherhood and adore a daughter and a son I did not want or even dream of at the time, I would not have believed you. Down that road of family and stability, love and care, lay mediocrity. And perhaps that is true. But what is also true is that if my story concluded here, midway, I could live, and perhaps die, with being mid. Not the happiest of endings, but happy enough. And no one would be more surprised than me.

Originally published on Esquire US

Four days before I’m supposed to travel to Portland, Oregon to meet Chuck Palahniuk, we’re already plotting a murder. Multiple murders, actually. Palahniuk is texting me from a Columbia High School reunion in Burbank, Washington, from which he graduated in 1980 (it wasn’t technically his reunion but his older sister’s), and among his fellow Coyotes are the bullies who chanted mean shit at him and beat him bloody.

“Several will die today,” one text reads. This was a conversation that began nine texts earlier with me saying hello, it’s the writer from Esquire, wanted to touch baseetc., and now, it’s somehow progressed to killing his childhood tormentors. Soon, Palahniuk discovers that “several are dead. I feel cheated.” His solution is, of course, obvious: “Must find and piss on their graves.”

To someone like me, who used to read his work as a twenty-something, this feels quintessentially Palahniukian: darkly funny, shamelessly macabre, and—most crucially—completely straight-faced. In Palahniuk’s fiction, twisted violence and sex occur in a matter-of-fact manner. His infamous short story “Guts,” which used to induce fainting in audience members when Palahniuk read it at events, is a vivid cautionary tale about a teenage boy sitting naked on a pool circulation pump as a means of sexual pleasure, which results in his colon being sucked out of his anus.

In Beautiful You, a woman finds herself in a 50 Shades of Grey-type relationship with a megabillionaire who plans to release a line of sex toys for women and uses the protagonist as an experimental subject. In one scene, he has her insert colour-coded beads into her vagina (pink) and anus (black) while they dine at a restaurant. The “orgasmic waves” she experiences are too intense, so she runs to the bathroom to pull them out, only she can’t—the beads are magnetised. As her “secretions dripped to the floor, where they’d begun to pool,” another woman has to help her by sucking out the pink bead, like “snake’s venom.”

By the time this text exchange is happening, I’ve spent the better part of a month becoming a Palahniuk completist: miring myself in his menacing diegeses, rife with rape, murder, torture, self-mutilation, suicide, and all manner of gruesome body horror. His latest, Not Forever, But For Now (releasing in early September), is a tour de force of literary debauchery, featuring some truly nasty stuff. Helping him plan the murder of his high school bullies, then, doesn’t seem strange at all. As I texted him then: “I would expect nothing less.”


Less than a week later, I’m in Portland, Oregon, I’m in the passenger seat of Palahniuk’s Prius, and I realise I have no idea where we’re going. I deferred to Palahniuk about where we would conduct the interview, and I neglect to ask as we navigate the city Palahniuk adopted as his own six days after graduating high school in 1980, the place teeming, as he wrote in Fugitives and Refugees, with “the most cracked of the crackpots.”

Chuck Palahniuk has a more significant literary oeuvre than he’s often given credit for, likely because of an unfair association with toxic masculinity, misogyny, and various other social ills typified by Tyler Durden, the impossibly intoxicating antihero at the centre of Palahniuk’s breakthrough debut novel Fight Club. It’s true that the majority of his fans are young men, the kind whose dorm room walls are festooned with movie posters featuring, say, Al Pacino, Uma Thurman, and a scowling Brad Pitt clutching a bar of soap, but attempts to link Palahniuk to the recent ascent of men’s rights activists fall apart upon closer examination of the novels.

It’s also true that many of his characters possess similar traits, espouse similarly nihilistic or anarchistic philosophies, and behave in similar ways as these misogynist trolls, but this only means that Palahniuk identified the disastrous consequences of enforced masculinity more accurately and earlier than everyone else. To be completely honest, I originally came to Portland to argue in favour of the Palahniuk-to-incel pipeline, but once I was disabused of that premise–first by reading the novels; then by speaking with Palahniuk–I discover something completely unexpected.

What becomes clear to me during the eight and a half hours I spend with Palahniuk is that he cares about his characters—about their happiness—much more than I would have assumed, and that his primary objective as a storyteller is the emotional climax a reader can be brought to. The murder? The mayhem? The soap? These are merely his tools, but what he builds with those tools in no way reflects its construction.

Palahniuk is much more subdued in his manner than I expected. He speaks quietly, softly, with a gentleness I associate with patient teachers. His voice and demeanour contain zero trace of menace or even naughtiness. He’s dressed in an understated way, but his clothes fit impeccably, and the interior of his car is as neat as straight bourbon. I can’t envision this Palahniuk pissing on the graves of dead bullies.

At half past noon, we pull into a mostly empty parking lot for what looks like a park. Enormous fir trees are clamouring to be the first to reach the cloudless sky. Urban noise vanishes, replaced by the usual ambience of nature and that human hum we can’t fully eliminate in the “natural” spaces we design and build onto. It’s gorgeous and eerie.

“I’m taking you here to kill you,” Palahniuk says, smiling. This is said without even a joking malice, but instead like an endearment.


The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother wouldn’t be a bad place to go, honestly. Known locally as the Grotto, it’s 25 hectares of towering conifers centred around a ten-storey cliff-face out of which a small cavern has been created by dynamite to serve as a Roman Catholic altar, which is festooned with statues, candles, and flowers. More than a dozen rows of pews extend out from the Grotto Cave for the services that regularly occur there.

At the end of the plaza, another formidable precipice looms over us, although this one’s manmade: the Chapel of Mary’s façade is tall and flat and wide, mirroring the grandeur of the nearby cliff. A path beyond the chapel, guarded by a comically ineffectual turnstile, leads to an elevator that takes you to the upper gardens and the meditation chapel and vistas of the city, which is, Palahniuk informs me, our destination. Though it’s midday on a bright and warm July Wednesday, the atmosphere is understandably solemn.

When we approach the Chapel of Mary and peer in to glimpse its mural and marble and mosaic-filled interior, I mention that I’m going to snap some photos because my visual memory is so terrible. Very politely, Palahniuk motions for me to be silent, nodding to the handful of attendees inside. He watches them with genuine affection, or at the very least deferential respect. I watch him instead.

Palahniuk is 61. He’s fit, healthy, and stylish in a way one wouldn’t necessarily associate with someone in their seventh decade, but his manner of moving about in the world—patient, deliberate, wholly aware of and attentive to the other people around him—strikes me as something acquired with age. The one other time I saw Palahniuk in real life was in Boston in 2007, when he packed the Coolidge Corner Theatre promoting his novel Rant. I didn’t speak to him that day, only sat in the audience, but he seemed, at 45, to lack some of those qualities.

He thrived on that stage, the crowd orchestral to his conductor’s sway. Fans arrived, per Palahniuk’s instruction, decked out in wedding gowns and tuxes, a nod to a demolition derby-style sport called Party Crashing in Rant. It was a raucous affair, as many of Palahniuk’s events are, replete with contests, trivia, beach balls, inflatable animals, and one of the liveliest crowds I’ve ever been a part of. And Palahniuk ate it up, with an almost arrogant ease. My recollection isn’t pristine—it was sixteen years ago, after all—but the Palahniuk standing in front of me, wistfully gazing at a very different group of devotees who worship a very different leader, operates with a humble wisdom. The Grotto, these places of contemplation and reflection, suit him.

Still, it feels like a weird place to discuss a novel about two wealthy brothers who spend their time fucking each other and murdering the staff of their mansion.

Not Forever, But For Now is Palahniuk’s twentieth novel and twenty-sixth book. He’s been a part of the American literary scene for three decades and has produced some of our most fascinating fiction. When Fight Club was published in 1996, Palahniuk emerged as part of a generation of young, transgressive writers—including David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Bret Easton Ellis, A.M. Homes, Elizabeth Hurtzel, Douglas Coupland, and Irvine Welsh—whose books depicted drug addicts, paedophiles, murderers, and the sexually promiscuous with unapologetic directness.

David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Palahniuk’s first novel catapulted him to genuine fame, allowing him to become a writer full-time after years spent working odd jobs like a mechanic or a technical writer—something for which he still expresses gratitude. The novels that followed Fight Club took on subjects from the edges of society: cultists, pornographers, drag queens, political extremists, and child soldiers. Not surprisingly, his books have proven controversial.

His 2001 novel Choke was challenged at a high school in Arkansas for “promoting homosexuality.” Hasan Basri Çıplak, the head of Ayrıntı Publishing House, and Funda Uncu, a translator, were charged with distributing obscenity and taken to court by the Turkish government for publishing Palahniuk’s 2008 novel Snuff. The trial, however, was postponed indefinitely, and the publisher was warned not to release any more obscene works in the meantime.

Most recently, Palahniuk’s story collection Make Something Up made it all the way to number eight on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2016 because, according to the ALA’s website summary of the complaints, it was deemed “disgusting and all around offensive.”

Palahniuk’s writing has pissed people off the world over, but even after all that, he hasn’t been cowed in his mission to transgress and to shock. Not Forever, But For Now is among his most disturbing novels, as it contains numerous gruesome and repugnant moments, and it features characters who make Tyler Durden look like Harvey the rabbit.

The brothers at the novel’s centre are Otto and Cecil, two ambiguously aged nepo babies living a lavish life in a manor in Wales. When we first meet them, they’re watching a nature documentary about Australia, from which they glean a wholly Palahniukian lesson: a newborn joey has to crawl up its mother’s fur to reach her pouch, unassisted, and “the squirmy, pink thing must rescue itself.”

Otto, the more dominant of the pair, explains to Cecil, the narrator, that sometimes a mother kangaroo will flick away one of her offspring “like a lump of nasty snot off her fingers.” She does this, Otto says, “because she hates its puny weakness,” and because “a mummy can always tell when a joey isn’t like the other joeys, why, it’s always going to be a stunted pre-male.”

As Otto and Cecil’s privileged world of affluence is unveiling, a couple of odd and discomfiting phrases appear. The brothers refer to a game called “Winnie-the-Pooh,” which turns out to be a euphemism for sexual dominance (“Will you be my daddy and chase me through the Hundred Acre Wood?”), and they use phrases like “having a go” and “having it off.” These are also sexual euphemisms, obviously, but these terms are so disturbing because they appear in reference to the brothers. As in, “We get back in the car and Otto has a go with me,” and, “Otto pushes me down on the cushions and has it off.” These brothers fuck each other… a lot. They are constantly engaged in some kind of sexual activity, so much so that there’s a recurring joke about the stench of their nursery.

Their sexual deviancy extends beyond each other, as well. In one scene, Cecil demands the nanny “bathe me front and back,” which she initially refuses to do, because, she says, he’s too old and has “all that hair down there.” Cecil insists, threatening her job. While it never explicitly states that what they’re arguing over is her pleasuring him, there’s a moment when Cecil mentions that they “once had a nanny who did it with her mouth.”

When they’re not doing all of that stuff, Otto and Cecil occupy their days by writing sexually charged letters to prison inmates in the hope that, once released, the convicts will come to their manor in search of some Winnie-the-Pooh, at which point the brothers will kill them.

They belong to a family of murderers with Bond villain-level ambitions for global control. Their grandfather hopes to mentor Otto into a successful member of their organisation. He occasionally shows up to reprimand the boys for their horrid, unmanly lifestyles and to regale them with tales of his exploits. They are not ordinary contract killers, but rather forces of empire power.

They orchestrate what they consider to be necessary events for the betterment of humanity. Otto and Cecil’s family is responsible for, among other major tragedies, 9/11, Kent State, and Jonestown, as well as the deaths of Princess Di, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Phil Hartman, and Sonny Bono. This devious cabal represents “great powers” who control the fate of history, and their reasons for setting these events into motion are the same as all imperial regimes: the expansion and perpetuation of power.

Two significant historical moments—that the Grandfather claims are related—receive special attention in the novel, through a lengthy flashback that’s parsed out in small chunks throughout, partly because the scene succinctly lays out the modus operandi of the organization’s history-forging, but also because it contains what I now know is a deeply personal expression of Palahniuk’s arduous life. The two events are the death of Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots.

After an elevator to the upper level, Palahniuk and I briefly take in the view of Portland from the Meditation Chapel, with its wall of windows, before finding a bench in the Peace Gardens, where Palahniuk elucidates his passion for what he calls “apostolic fiction,” where a narrator details the thoughts and exploits of a person they love, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Palahniuk says, “When you're writing about a character who really admires and loves another character, it’s such a joy. Because so often with my generation, it’s just narratives of snark, where it's just always about people tearing down things. But to have a character writing about the thing that they love—that is absolutely breathtaking. To be with someone who is intelligently praising, and in that Boswell way, saying, I know this great guy, I want to record everything this great guy says, I want you to love the thing I love. Yeah. That is a joy to write.”

Palahniuk is referring to Fight Club, his first and best-known novel. The unnamed narrator so idolises Tyler Durden because Durden was designed by the narrator himself to be an ideal, a psychological manifestation of everything he wished he would be. This is why Tyler has proven so perniciously stubborn as a hero of alienated young men. You love Tyler because the narrator loves Tyler, and in the film, every detail of Brad Pitt’s physique, style, and attitude were meticulously calibrated to make you admire him.

Palahniuk also claims credit (convincingly, I think) for popularising the pejorative word snowflake, though ironically, his initial use of the term (”you are not special, you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake” in Fight Club) was meant as a debunking of the treatment his generation received from public education, this “all encouraging all the time” celebration of everyone’s individuality as equally special. This technique, in Palahniuk’s view, left him and many of his cohort ill-prepared for adulthood. But what right-wingers and boomers mean by snowflake is weakness: an unwillingness to confront dissent, an intolerance to disagreement, an expectation of privilege. Basically some trigger-warning safe-space wokeness bullshit.

To put it another way: Palahniuk targeted the parents who raised their kids to believe in such universal uniqueness, whereas now those same parents seem to take aim at anyone foolish enough to believe them. This, to me, succinctly articulates the gap between Palahniuk’s nuanced satire and the surface-level interpretations of a certain contingent of angry, reactionary men who feel cheated out of something they assume was promised to them.


For his part, Palahniuk laughs when I bring up Fight Club’s connection to incels. What interested him was what would happen if men had their own version of the Joy Luck Club or the Ya-Ya Sisterhood—and to him, the fact that it would be violent wasn’t even a question. “I just wanted to create this arbitrary club,” he says, because what really mattered was the escalation. “Fight Club has to become Project Mayhem. It has to become this thing that’s beyond our control, a thing you can’t reel back in.”

Not Forever, But For Now is also apostolic fiction. Cecil adores Otto; he’s always telling us how clever Otto is, how wise. Cecil, though, is quite aware of Otto’s evil. In fact, Cecil’s narration deliberately withholds information about Otto from the reader because, as he explains, “I’d rather you embrace Otto as a winning boy.” He’s so protective of his abusive brother that he cares more about creating a positive illusion than revealing the negative truth.

Palahniuk chose the word “apostolic” as his name for this narrative form, even though when he defines the term in conversation, he invokes love and admiration. Apostolic, though, refers to religious discipleship—not merely love but worship, proselytisation, and devotion. Apostles spread the gospels as missionaries and crusaders. An apostle is stauncher than a lover, and much less prone to doubt and nuance. Love—healthy love, at least—seeks to view its object in all its complexity, flaws and all.

Otto wants Cecil to organise his existence around his needs. “Sometimes,” Cecil tells us, late at night, “Otto stands over my bed” and warns him that, “If I held any suspicion you’d leave me, I’d put a stop to you in an instant.” Cecil is completely under Otto’s spell, a fact Palahniuk emphasises with a tactic he has used since the beginning of his literary career. “I did the Fight Club trick,” he says, “where the narrator—his quotes are never inside quotation marks. It’s always paraphrased.”

Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of communicating character, so its absence keeps someone’s true self at bay. The result is that the reader never hears the narrator when he interacts with others, giving him little definition as a character, even on the page. Cecil’s liberation, then, is tied to Otto’s destruction. Cecil can only thrive when the one he loves dies.

It’s easy to dismiss Palahniuk’s fiction as provocation for provocation’s sake, as an indulgence in decadence and debauchery, providing as much visceral pleasure (but as little artistic quality) as gritty horror movies and bloody video games. It wouldn’t be hard—I know, I’ve done it—to dismiss his novels as moody stopovers between young adult fiction and adult literature, like a reader’s goth phase. His work is dark, disturbing, and unsparingly satirical, and it’s filled with an eclectic array of information.

When Palahniuk attended college at the University of Oregon, he studied journalism, which is apparent in his novels. One of his trademarks is providing fascinating facts about niche, underground subjects. How to make bombs. The logistics of pornography. The effects of drugs. The means by which Hollywood foley artists create sounds. Palahniuk lends his stories a conspiratorial verisimilitude with these brief lessons, as if nudging you and letting you in on a little-known secret.

Moreover, the novels lob savagely satirical bon mots at their targets, many of which are represented by the characters. This can lead to flimsy, stand-in cyphers who function as tools of the novelist’s subtextual aims rather than full-fledged individuals with convincing agency. Palahniuk’s characters, as he ages, have become more and more human, and their growth more central to the arc.

His previous novel, The Invention of Sound, features two protagonists mired in a wild narrative involving missing children, recorded murders, and Hollywood corruption; the finale is a scene of harrowing violence between these two characters. A contextless description of this ending would not do it justice, as what’s happening underneath the violence is an incredibly moving and meaningful conclusion to both characters’ stories. The pieces are disturbing, but the whole is heartbreaking. As a novelist, pathos is now Palahniuk’s primary intent.

I ask him if he thinks readers or critics recognise the emotional component of his novels.

“I don’t think 99% of them do,” he says, “And it’s painful. I don’t blame them for not wanting to go there.”

There is the true depths of a character’s catharsis, a confrontation with their deep, troubled selves. One scene in Not Forever, But For Now involves Otto and Cecil hunting around for “shy, blushing, effete types we can coerce into giving a ride.” They find a guileless boy named Digby, who despite Otto’s unambiguous remarks remains unaware of their intentions. When Cecil spots him, he assesses his appearance:

The lad looks to be so alone that he’ll do human toilet and tell himself this was love, why, he’ll do anything we ask just so long as he’s not ignored and left to stand there alone. He’s a baby animal so unwanted he’ll do rusty trombone and risk his life—risk catching hepatitis and AIDS—to ward off another moment of being some pre-male nobody set under a bus-stop light in the middle of cold nowhere.

When Palahniuk talks about this moment, I sense a real note of resignation in his voice. “That Digby scene is the most human scene I’ve ever written,” he says. “But nobody will appreciate that. Nobody will appreciate the pathos of that scene, because they’ll fix on the sort of dirtiness of it.”

He’s hurt. It hurts him that people rarely grasp the emotional punch of his writing, that they aren’t more moved by the grounded feelings and earned catharses of his characters. Readers don’t see how much his own personal anguish and history informs his fiction. But they can’t. They aren’t privy to enough of Palahniuk’s life to make the connections. They’re understandably distracted by the heightened plots and grotesque imagery and lurid themes. The emotions are there, certainly, but sometimes the visceral intensity overpowers the soulful underpinnings.

In an essay in Stranger Than Fiction, Palahniuk writes that Fight Club is “less a novel than an anthology of my friends’ lives. I do have insomnia and wander with no sleep for weeks. Angry waiters I know mess with food. They shave their heads. My friend Alice makes soap. My friend Mike cuts single frames of smut into family features.” 

Lullaby was composed in the aftermath of a personal tragedy, but it would be impossible to discern this from the novel’s plot. In 1999, Palahniuk’s father was murdered, along with a woman he was seeing, by the woman’s ex-boyfriend. During the killer’s trial, Palahniuk struggled over whether they should seek the death penalty, ultimately writing a letter recommending a death sentence. Lullaby is about a culling song that ends the life of anyone who hears it; words that kill.

Palahniuk crafts his art with such personal investment and hard-won wisdom. He immortalises his friends and navigates his grief, incorporating private pain and experience. And like many artists, he struggles to accept a fundamental disparity in presenting work: that what the art the world sees speaks only to a fraction of the struggle required to complete it, meaning they necessarily underestimate its ingenuity and emotional complexity.

But Not Forever, But For Now contains some of Palahniuk’s most personal expressions of himself, which brings us back to Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots.

For the past 30 years—since before he’d ever published anything—Palahniuk has been with his husband Mike. They live on a large property outside of Portland, where they’ve lived for the better part of two decades. Palahniuk is protective of Mike and doesn’t like him being written about all that much, so I only want to characterise Mike the way Palahniuk does, as I did not meet or speak with Mike.

Mike mostly doesn’t read Palahniuk’s books (although he did read and was moved by Lullaby), but he acts as Palahniuk’s sounding board for ideas. “Mike is really smart in terms of cultural precedent,” Palahniuk says, “and he can say, ‘No, that’s too much like this thing a million years ago.’ Because God forbid you get forty pages into something and realise, oh, that was a Simpsons episode.” But if Palahniuk can get Mike to smile, “that little smile like, you bastard, don’t do that,” or, even better, if he can get him to laugh, “that’s the ultimate green light.”

The nefarious firm of murderers in Not Forever, But For Now must kill Judy Garland, the Grandfather explains to her on June 22, 1969, so that the Stonewall Riots will take place. This is a regularly recurring (and most certainly apocryphal) story about Stonewall. The idea is that the funeral of gay icon Judy Garland, which took place the same night as the riots, set a gloomy mood to the evening and thus contributed to or perhaps even caused the events that unfolded.

It probably originated with Charles Kaiser’s 1997 book The Gay Metropolis, but historians don’t grant the theory much credence. In her book The Gay Revolution, Lillian Faderman spends four pages considering, via interviewees, the numerous factors that contributed to the events, and Garland isn’t mentioned at all.

But Palahniuk is using this myth more in the sense that Christopher Bram invokes in his book on gay writers, Eminent Outlaws: “People want to connect the death of Garland with the riots, but no mourners appear to have been present at Stonewall. The juxtaposition is only a symbolic coincidence (yet it’s hard to say exactly what it symbolises).” Others, like activist Bob Kohler, who was present at Stonewall, totally objected to the notion, “because it trivialises the whole thing.”

But it’s more than that. The Grandfather tells Judy Garland why on earth the powers that be would want something like the Stonewall riots to occur, and it goes something like this: “the population explosion was planned” by this ruling cabal because they “needed more humans to constantly vacuum clean the environment.”

These expendable hordes will “act as traps to collect and store really harmful germs and viruses such as HIV and hepatitis, thus making those bugs less of a threat to better humans.” But “a slave class,” as Grandfather refers to them, must be controlled so that they don’t take over. Lucky for Grandfather’s firm, “a really ripping science-based solution presented itself.” That is, “the mid-century explosion of styrene and isoprene and vinyl chloride” from the plastics industry caused a birthrate spike of “fey, feeble, polyurethan-defected things.”

Gay men is what he means, though he never refers to them that way. Instead it's “PCB-poisoned pre-males” or “this plastics-infused population of eunuchs.” If a growing community of excluded and ostracised people were to discover the truth—that not only have carcinogenic compounds produced “deviant, plastics-inspired impulses,” but that these impulses will deny them “traditional means of advancement,” so that they will “accrue wealth with no offspring”—they might understandably revolt, but they would most certainly sue. At first, Grandfather’s firm decided to employ shame to keep these “wispy, lispy” “bred-to die drones” from acknowledging their sexuality, let alone investigating its possible causes. This worked for a while, but a better solution was needed.

Hence Stonewall. Stonewall and the birth of the gay rights movement would shift the narrative “from shame to pride.” Now, these “tight-pants pre-males” will “embrace their engineered disabilities as badges of honour,” which will, according to Grandfather, result in the same unwillingness to find a cause, or even to consider the idea that their sexuality has a cause, thereby keeping them from discovering the truth and bringing down the global economy.

These are all, from Judy Garland on down, offensive ways to depict gay men and the legacy of Stonewall. Not that it’s any more objectionable than a lot of the stuff in Palahniuk’s fiction, but this relates to an aspect of his life he isn’t very public about, so I was curious what he had to say about this part of the novel.

“God, it’s going to be tough to articulate this,” he says. “Being same-sex-attracted in the tiny town I grew up in was really a dangerous thing. And when I came out to my mother, she said, ‘Don’t tell anybody. Don’t tell anybody, please. They will kill you.’ And I never came out to my father. Then he was murdered in ‘99. So that was always a huge incomplete thing.”

“How old were you when you came out to your mother?” I ask.

“I was sixteen,” he says. He repeats: “And she said, ‘Don’t tell anybody, because they will kill you.’ They will kill you. Because when she was a teenager, somebody in the town was suspected of being homosexual, and his house was burned down, and he was driven out of town. It was such a horrible ordeal that she was terrified it would happen to me.

“And then I age into this culture,” he continues, “where if you aren’t completely out in every aspect of your public life and personal life, then you’re somehow damaged and shameful and raw. So within my lifetime I’m supposed to transition from being a person that has really created this whole guardedness not just for my own protection, but for the protection of the people I love and for my family who are still in that small town. Then I’m expected to automatically step out of that into a kind of joyous, flag-waving outness that is completely at odds with the entire way I’ve been raised, where that was my shell and my armour. You don’t just give that up. You don’t give that up overnight. And people say if you don’t give that up overnight, then you’re self-hating, all these wrong things. So I’m fucked either way. I’m just trying to be one person and live a life. And I’m sorry: I’m just not ready to be completely out and just put it all out there.”

I anticipated Palahniuk citing the corporate commodification of Pride or the conservative backlash that came with it—but I didn’t expect such a personally anguished reason. Then I remember the bullies from high school that he and I plotted to kill, the ones who chanted “Pal-ah-niuk! Suck my dick!” at him while they assaulted him.

I think too of the narrator of Fight Club in relation to Tyler Durden—the meek, closeted drone versus the uninhibited, flamboyant hero. I think of the disdain Otto and Cecil have for the weak joeys, how the language they use is not theirs but the Grandfather’s, who has taught them to hate themselves. And I recall, too, how Palahniuk’s fictional milieu tends towards loners who resent the legacy they were born into, who seek out deviant pleasure from disreputable sources, who are made to feel guilty for something they didn’t choose.

I see Palahniuk’s anger at all that was withheld from him in his youth that now exists in plentitude. Even though those things no longer mean what they might have to him at sixteen, he’s now expected to be grateful for them. He’s no longer allowed to be afraid.

They will kill you.

Now it’s no surprise at all that Palahniuk cares so deeply for his twisted creations—who else is going to love them? Sure, they’re thieves and con artists and cheats, they’re druggies and sex addicts and adrenaline junkies, and they’re murderers and rapists and villains—but Palahniuk’s novels serve as a haven for them to be their true, deviant selves, because he was never given one himself. These extremist misfits are his life’s work; not the novels, or the over-the-top stories, or the abrasive humour and the controversial satire.

It’s Cecil and Mitzi and Madison and Carl and Pygmy and Tender and Joe’s Raging Bile Duct. In their horrific, transgressive, and misunderstood behaviour, these outcasts act in his stead to embrace a selfhood he wasn’t allowed, arrive at a catharsis he never experienced, or get retribution on enemies he could only joke about. Like any great novelist, Palahniuk adores his darlings; it’s just that his darlings kill.

Originally published on Esquire US