A different normality

by Chuck Palahniuk

A few years back I considered myself a big fan of Palahniuk’s novels. Then either they got worse or my reading tastes changed. Either way, this collection of his essays, many of them previously published in newspapers and magazines, lay around unread until I had an urge to read more non-fiction and this seemed to fit the description well!

While I may have gone off his fiction, I still love Palahniuk’s writing style. His short punchy sentences, repetition and colloquial phrasing break all sorts of rules about writing and grammar but they work. He can be very critical of the world but he can also be very sweet in his genuine interest in people, often people no-one else is interested in. He’s led an odd life, some of which he talks about in these essays, and that has no doubt coloured his view of the world. I don’t admire him for doing strange, sometimes dangerous things, but I do admire him for working with dying people, for telling stories that deserve to be told, for openly analysing his reasons for writing what he does.

If you’ve read any of Palahniuk’s fiction these essays will make sense to you. He collects facts and stories about real people and files them away for later use in a novel. Literally, it turns out. He has a wall of filing cabinets full of this stuff. The essays range from moments in his own life, to people he’s met casually, to people he has deliberately researched. There’s the crew of a US navy submarine, three men who built their own castles, a woman who trained her dog in search and rescue, professional wrestlers. There’s Palahniuk’s experiences of having his novel turned into a Hollywood film, of having an annoying faux psychic woman genuinely unearth a troubling childhood memory, of dealing with his father’s murder.

My favourite pieces were the more positive ones, which were mostly about writing. Palahniuk’s career took off when he attended a creative writing class and he writes movingly about the greatness of his mentors and some of his favourite writers. His cynicism is still there but it’s aimed at himself and not the subject.

I didn’t enjoy every essay. Palahniuk does his research thoroughly and in some cases that meant trawling through paragraph after paragraph on a subject I don’t care about, like wrestling or demolition derbies, but the essay as a whole is always worth reading because somewhere in there will be a gem of a portrait or observation, a really real person saying or doing something that makes you stop and think.

These essays don’t get as dark as his novels do, possibly because they’re mostly written for the wider audiences of magazines with editors who don’t want to publish Palahniuk’s darkest thoughts. But they’re clearly written from the perspective of a person who has dark thoughts, who questions the acceptance of any “normality”, who has frankly been through some shit. It’s interesting stuff.

Published 2004 by Jonathan Cape.