If you’re Chuck Palahniuk, the first rule of Fight Club is that you never escape Fight Club. And maybe, almost 20 years later, you don’t want to.
“It’s the thing you dream of, being co-opted by the culture,” says the Portland, Oregon, novelist, who’s famous for raucous, wildly interactive readings of stories so grotesque they have been known to make audience members keel over (more on that later).
“In the long term, it becomes your calling card, proof you can produce something that has a lasting effect,” he says. “The disadvantage is that things that have a lasting effect on culture tend to be things that were dismissed or rejected at the beginning. The book and the movie were failures for years. ... Fight Club the movie lost a lot of people their jobs. The book sold fewer than 10,000 copies in hardcover. It was a big disaster.”
Published in 1996, Palahniuk’s first novel is no longer considered a disaster. It’s a cultural touchstone that rages against complacency and consumerism via its iconic, anarchic master of mayhem Tyler Durden (played with unhinged grace by Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s 1999 film).
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Fight Club continues to be an inspiration for Palahniuk, who appears Tuesday at Miami Dade College. He has just launched the first issue of his new comic Fight Club 2 (Dark Horse, $3.99), part of a 10-issue series with artist Cameron Stewart that extends and deepens the mythology. There’s even a Fight Club-related story, Expedition, in his new collection, Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread (Doubleday, $26.95).
“Last summer, I was in Madrid, and I made it a point not to learn Spanish so I could write and not be distracted by conversation,” says Palahniuk, 53 and the author of 14 other books, including Choke, Lullaby, Haunted, Doomed, Damned and Beautiful You. “I set myself a goal of reading all of Lovecraft and then writing a story using as many of his tics as I could. That story became Expedition. I like the idea of approaching Fight Club from different perspectives. ... I write what you’d call dirty realism. To write Expedition in that over-the-top, fake Gothic way was really challenging.”
Other stories in Make Something Up are equally challenging — for readers. They’re twisted, funny, disturbing. In Red Sultan’s Big Boy, a man discovers the horse he bought for his daughter has a startling sordid past. In Romance, a woman whips out her tampon and smacks a guy in the face with it. In Cannibal — well, I can’t even tell you what happens in Cannibal. You’ll have to read it for yourself, so buckle up.
But in Zombies — about a new teenage craze in which kids are attaching cardiac defibrillators to their heads and scrambling their brains to avoid the inevitable burden of adulthood — he actually writes a happy ending (of sorts).
“It was a muscle I wasn’t using,” he explains. “I was lazy. I hadn’t written enough happy endings. I was just determined to end at least one story on an upbeat note.”
Odd, maybe, coming from the writer famous for tossing severed arms or inflatable hearts into a crowd. But talking on the phone, Palahniuk doesn’t sound like a wild and crazy guy at all. He’s pleasant, thoughtful and measured.
“Whatever image the world might have of him as an anarchic spirit, well, they’re right in terms of his imagination, but that doesn’t reflect Chuck as a person,” says Doubleday executive editor Gerry Howard, who has worked with Palahniuk on all of his books except Invisible Monsters. “I never know what he’s going to come up with, and I’m always delighted he comes up with it. He’s a very careful writer, very easy to work with.”
“He's not afraid to say the thing that everyone else dreads and yet longs to hear,” says Miami novelist and memoirist Diana Abu-Jaber, a friend of Palahniuk’s. “But he might just toy with his readers a bit, like a cat with its prey, before he lets you hear it.”
Palahniuk may enjoy shocking his readers, but he also rewards them. His appearances bear no resemblance to the usual polite book reading, with only the shuffle of the audience shifting in their seats as a soundtrack. Palahniuk throws candy bars and bounces balls around the room. He hit on this style after growing weary of touring and knowing he needed a change. Before an appearance in Boulder, Colorado, he went to a Claire’s with his publicist and bought every rhinestone tiara in the store. Later at the reading, he told anyone who wanted to ask a question at the reading that they’d have to wear a tiara.
The result was bracing. “People were so tickled, it broke my unexpressed resentment for that part of the job,” he says.
Those tiaras led to other hijinks — and, eventually, the passing out, which often occurs when Palahniuk reads his infamous story Guts (not in Make Something Up, but you can find it online at chuckpalahniuk.net — just ... prepare yourself). According to the Miami New Times, two audience members swooned during a reading of Guts at Miami Book Fair International in 2011. The story opens with: “Inhale. Take in as much air as you can.” Apparently they didn’t.
Palahniuk confirms the phenomenon.
“Over 200 people have passed out at readings,” he says. “Originally, when I took the story to workshop, I thought it was a funny story. Nobody passed out or reacted that strongly. It wasn’t till I started reading it in public that people started to faint.”
Will Palahniuk ever write another story that sets the audience swooning? Maybe. He loves testing himself. After working hard to master the comic form for Fight Club 2 — “I had to really prune back on dialogue, and I’m already a guy who hates dialogue” — he thinks he’ll learn to rely more on gesture and nonverbal communication in his writing, “which is so much more effective emotionally.”
Soon he’ll be touring around with a rough draft of the screenplay for Lullaby, and he’s just signed on with James Franco for a film version of Rant. All these new experiences might sound intimidating, but Palahniuk thrives on the challenge.
“To be this stupid person learning from these experts on Fight Club 2, these artists and colorists, and me being at the bottom of the class, it was fantastic,” he says. “It makes me feel like a young person again.”
Meet the author
Who: Chuck Palahniuk.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Miami Dade College, Chapman Conference Center, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami.
Info: Purchase an autographed copy of “Make Something Up” at Books & Books and get a signed copy of the first comic editon of “Fight Club 2” and a voucher for one admission; www.booksandbooks.com.