1999, Books, Fiction

Survivor (1999) by Chuck Palahniuk

Sometime in my early 20s I read Haunted, Palahniuk’s creative short story collection, and I fell in love. I had already seen Fight Club and enjoyed it, but Haunted felt to me like a really unique and fun way to present short stories, and I guess I felt like I discovered a singular voice for our time, or something stupidly pretentious like that. But, like so many authors I have discovered in my life I never actually got around to reading any more of his books for like a decade. Worse, I leant Haunted to someone and never got it back. This is now the third novel of his I’ve read since I first read Haunted and I find myself chasing the dragon. I have yet to find anything like the connection with these novels that I found with the short story collection. And, because I no longer own my copy to re-read, I am stuck wondering whether it’s the Palahniuk novels I’ve chosen that I don’t particularly love or whether I have just plain grown out of him. (As he strikes me as the kind of author you – men – grow out of.) I suspect it’s the latter but I don’t know for sure.

I found at least something in the two other novels of his I’ve read but I didn’t here. I think this is partially on me and my temperament when I read this, but it’s also because this is a very flawed book.
So the first thing is the pagination/chapters. This probably felt pretty clever when it was conceived and my guess is the “Tuesday Night Writer’s Workshop” validated that feeling. But I don’t see what it does for the novel. If it creates tension for you, that’s good, but to me it’s a very gimmicky way of doing that. The writing should create the tension, not the page/chapter numbering. The only thing it really did for me was encourage me to finish it faster than I was, because I could easily see how soon would be done with it. (I was not enjoying myself.)

Only one character is well-drawn here, and that actually might be an exaggeration. I think that is a drawback of first person narratives in general and, if memory serves, a particular issue with Palahniuk. (You don’t read him for the characters, I do know that.) But the characters here are particularly bad. The agent is not a character, he is a plot device. Fertility is mysterious simply because she’s not really drawn out. The case worker feels like a caricature. Can Adam even be considered a character rather than a plot device? Our hero at least has some depth but I don’t know how much I believe in him as a real person. I may have not had these problems with this kind of writing in my 20s but I do now. If I’m going to enjoy this kind of endlessly cynical writing, I need someone to relate to, or at least understand as a human being.

I didn’t laugh anywhere near as much as I think Palahniuk intended. Some of that is just me: I wasn’t necessarily in the mood for this book to start but I also think I have become less cynical with age. And Palahniuk is extremely cynical. But the humour here seems extra cynical even for him, so much so that it feels phony or fake at times. The cynicism I mean. I feel like I am pretty grounded and I find some of what he imagines the world falling for to be beyond unrealistic. I get it, people (as a group) are really dumb. But are they really this dumb? If they’re not, this doesn’t really work as a laugh-out-loud satire or as just smirky satire.

It’s creative. (He is nothing if not creative.) And it’s full of the kinds of lines I think a lot of people really appreciate Palahniuk for. But it just didn’t connect with me and, frankly, I think it is just utterly lacking in characters to the point of being just not a very good novel.


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