Chuck Palahniuk: A Heart Breaking Life of Staggering Weirdness
CHUCK PALAHNIUK IS PACKING BOXES, large boxes and small boxes. Into some of the boxes go Whitman’s Samplers, chocolate-covered cherries, necklaces strung by him with beads that spell out the names of the addressees, small rubber ducks, birthday candles, novelty erasers and fake dog poo. Others are getting hundreds of teriyaki-steak-scented room fresheners, and lots of T-bone-steak-shaped bathmats, and bunches of very lifelike plastic limbs, hacked off at the joints bloodily – arms, legs, feet, hands. Chuck packs everything just so. Chuck is methodic about his business. He’s happy. He couldn’t be more at peace.
Not far from the packing area is the desk where Chuck works on his books when he’s not bundling all that weird stuff into boxes, to send to his legion of fan-mail-writing fans and to bookstores nationwide, as props for his readings. The most famous of his books is Fight Club, which was made into a movie in 1999, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, but he’s also written eight others, with titles like Survivor, Lullaby, Choke and Invisible Monsters. Most have been best sellers. Taken as one, what they’re about is testosterone, balls-out fist-fighting, rage, mass suicide, necrophilia, estrogen therapy, chaos, sex addiction, disfigured fashion models, God, fetal brain-cell harvesting, telekinesis, pop-culture-hating anti-consumerism and, finally, the redemptive power of community. It’s the stuff that circulates in Chuck’s brain. It’s the stuff that Chuck has got to get down on paper before it disappears. It’s the stuff that readers who have never read books before – blue-collar types, goths, anarchists, the chronically unemployed, the snaggletoothed and the highly tattooed — love to read. They call him “the new generation’s Kurt Vonnegut” and show up en masse at his readings, to listen to him read stories, tell stories and answer questions, because he puts on quite some show.
This morning, Chuck wakes up at three, driven out of sleep by Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of Haunted, his latest. Maslin has long been a Chuck supporter, but this time around she poops on him. She calls his book “ugly overkill.” So, Chuck’s in distress – “a little heartbroken,” he says – though he hasn’t actually read the review. “It’s just been regurgitated to me by a whole bunch of people,” he says somberly. “People can’t wait to lay that bone at your feet. I mean, what am I supposed to do with that knowledge?”
He doesn’t know. What he does know is that, historically, bad reviews have led to best-seller-size sales, an appropriate perversity in Chuckland, and all he can do now is pack boxes. Today he has a helper. He and his helper are unspooling ribbon and gathering clumps of cavity-filling Mylar confetti – “shred,” Chuck calls it.
“Now, get two five-foot-long complementary-colored ribbons,” Chuck says. “No! Not those! My God! Are you colorblind? Ok, now, put Mr. Duck with his flat side against the box wall facing you. Is Mr. Duck nested? Ok, Now, get your dog shit. Put the dog shit on the candles. Let’s put some more shred in. Don’t skimp on the shred. I’ve got tons of shred. I want them to be finding shred in their carpet for months to come.”
Going along, he says, “It gets me really high to know that during any week, 75 to 100 packages are arriving on all these doorsteps. But then there’s this one kid who wrote me back, saying, ‘Dude, we used to make necklaces like this in camp, when I was seven!’ That made me feel ‘Oh, this is why people made fun of me in high school.’ Ok. Got it.”
From there he remembers the time in junior high when Glenda Haas, a beauty freshly arrived from the Deep South, breaks her necklace, scattering glittering crystal beads all over the school hallway. Full of puppy love, Chuck drops to his knees to help her pick them up. (For every four beads he returns to her, he steals two for himself, such is his love… .) At one point, though, she looks over at him. “Y’all are really sweet,” she says, ever so pleasantly. “When I moved here, everybody told me y’all were retarded.”
Chuck grabs some shred and presses it into a box.
“I suddenly realized that all my peers were telling her that I was retarded,” Chuck says. “It was devastating.” He closes the box and places it on top of a host of other closed boxes. “How do you recover from that?”
HE WRITES THESE BOOKS IN WHICH horrific things happen – in a story called “Guts,” which appears as its own tale inside Haunted, a kid jerking off in the family pool decides to up the thrill ante by positioning his rectum over the pool’s vacuum pump, and out burble his intestines – yet he hardly looks the type. At the age of forty-three, he looks anonymously mild. He wears white button-down shirts tucked into prep-school khakis belted midriff-high, with docksider-type mocs on his feet. His dark hair is short and neatly styled. In his dust-jacket pictures, he’s a chiseled male model; in person, not so much. He speaks with precise diction and is happily long-winded. His apartment in Vancouver, Washington, where he does his box packing, is well-kept and spare, nothing in the fridge but two six packs of Full Sail beer and a few slices of old pizza. He is unfailingly polite. Life has surrounded him with misery – suicides, murders, incinerations – yet the effects of it largely seem to be coiled elsewhere. Or maybe that’s just how he appears today, because the record suggests a certain proclivity for unsettled, oddball-type flux.
For instance, in college, at the University of Oregon, where he graduated with a journalism degree, Chuck sometimes wasn’t even Chuck. He was Nick. When Chuck wanted to go out flirting or drugging or drinking or brawling, he went by the name of Nick. He used to be a bulked-up weight lifter but is now quite slender. Also, in 1997, he decided he didn’t want to have to decide what to wear every morning, so he went to a farm store and bought fifteen identical Amish outfits. The hat, the suspenders, the brown trousers, the shoes – he made his way around town as Amish Chuck for six months straight. He’s something of a prankster, too, and during public events he used to claim possession of Oprah Winfrey’s diaphragm, which he was going to put up on eBay, ha-ha. Finally, between the penultimate and final drafts of his books, Chuck is known to shave his head down to the nubs with electric shears, then smear on a lye-based depilatory to ensure perfection in a cue-ball-smooth cranium. He has his reasons. One of them is “It’s a way of acknowledging that nothing is so sacred that it can’t be made better. Suddenly that precious person who you’ve primped and worked so carefully to make look good, there’s no saving that person. That person is fucked. He’s lost his ego. He’s lost his identity. He’s been humiliated. And it totally frees you up.”
So, that’s the kind of guy Chuck is.