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 base, etc., 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.