STRANGER THAN FICTION by Chuck Palahniuk / Negative Review / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

A Review of STRANGER THAN FICTION (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Is one permitted to write a less-than-obsequious review of a chuckpalahniukbook?  Because chuckpalahniukbooks make so much money, to say something unflattering about them is seen as a sin against consumerism and capitalism, an offence as grave as blasphemy.  We must conform, it is suggested, and worship chuckpalahniuk as a god.

If chuckpalahniukbooks have gained a huge audience among unintelligent teenagers, that is precisely because chuckpalahniuk writes on the level of an unintelligent teenager.

Nonetheless, his book of “essays,” the tritely titled Stranger Than Fiction, risks alienating his Hitler-Jugend-sized fan base.

The clichés begin with the title and get worse from there.  Stranger Than Fiction is essentially a haphazard collection of hastily written notes.  Some of them concern chuckpalahniuk’s fame and the good things about it.  Others concern celebrities chuckpalahniuk knows personally and who know him (it?).

chuckpalahniuk celebrates himself (itself?) with all of the enthusiasm of an out-of-work D-list actor.  He tells us that he “SO writes” in order to meet people who look like Uma Thurman and J.F.K., Jr.: “This is SO why I write.”  How noble!  Unfortunately or fortunately, Uma Thurman, who would not consider herself a writer, is infinitely more eloquent and thoughtful than the writer chuckpalahniuk.

There are “essays” on Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis that contain nothing but quotations from Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis.

In the “essay” “Brinksmanship,” chuckpalahniuk laughs at his readers, telling them that what he is writing is “rushed and desperate.”  But, he also seems to say, “You’ll read it anyway. After all, I’m a big name now.”  In other words, the writer spits out garbage on the page, and we have to spend our valuable time reading his drivel, while he laughs and laughs and laughs…

There is an entire “essay” on Brad Pitt and his super-gorgeous lips.  Oh, no, don’t be fooled, Gentle Reader!  chuckpalahniuk assures us that this isn’t mere tabloid celebrity gossip.  No.  Don’t be deceived!  As chuckpalahniuk remarks, “This wasn’t really about Brad Pitt. It’s about everybody.”  Really?  You don’t say!

When chuckpalahniuk makes cursory references to serious writers (i.e. those who are not merely celebrities), such as Heidegger, Venturi, or Derrida, it seems unlikely that he spent more than fifteen minutes reading them.

The prose is not simple; it is simplistic.  Minimalism is a powerful literary device, but this is not minimalism.  It is infantilism.  Minimalism only seems simple; there is profundity in its pregnant cadences and silences.  There is no depth beneath this book’s middle-school-level prose.

I am not exaggerating when I say that chuckpalahniuk writes like a subnormal, unintelligent teenager.  Here is what he writes in his correspondence with Ira Levin (whose Rosemary’s Baby he pilfered in Diary): “That’s very, very creepy, Mr. Levin!”

chuckpalahniuk seems to believe that his life is interesting and that we will find his life interesting, as well.  A writer’s life, however, is not a source of significance.  Language and the imagination are the sole springs of literary value.

Witheringly boring, agonizingly self-glamorizing, and virtually unreadable – unless you are Mick, Chick, or Chimp, of course.

Joseph Suglia





FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk – A Review by Dr. Joseph Suglia / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer



An Analysis of FIGHT CLUB (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.

* * * * *

The thirty-year-old narrator of Fight Club feels alive only when surrounded by decrepitude and death.  He attends testicular-cancer support groups in order to enhance his vitality: By distinguishing himself as much as possible from the sick, he attempts to wrest himself away from a consumerist culture that suppresses death; by exposing himself to the mortality of others (which grants him the knowledge that he also is going to die), every moment in his life becomes more valuable.  One of the infinite number of go-betweens in this culture (his job is to determine the expenses of recalling lethally defective automobiles), the narrator yearns to die in an airplane crash in order to free himself from the superficiality of a world that trivializes death and immortalizes the unliving commodity (a “necrophilous” culture, as Erich Fromm would say).  Only what he imagines to be a direct experience of death grants him a real and intense sense of life, and, as the novel proceeds, violence will come to be his salvation.

[Let me remark parenthetically: the word “violence,” etymologically, means “life.”]

And yet Western culture manufactures not merely inclinations and proclivities, but also aversions and forms of disgust: Particularly relevant to a discussion of Palahniuk’s novel is the aversion toward violence and mortality that the narrator attempts to unlearn.

The narrator’s desires are prefabricated.  As countless others in a consumerist society, his selfhood is defined by the merchandise that he purchases: His “perfect life” is constituted by “his” Swedish furniture, “his” quilt cover set, “his” Hemlig hatboxes, and the IKEA catalogues that serve as the foundation of his “identity.”  He is the member of a generation of men who identify themselves with commodities (“Everything, the lamp, the chairs, the rugs were me” [111]), commodities that, according to the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, serve as extensions of one’s personality in the capitalist world.

Enter Tyler Durden (a man who is, apparently, the same age as the narrator).  Aggressive, virile, and charming, Durden represents alternative possibilities that the narrator could assume.  Tyler is radically opposed to the progressive “improvement” of the self that has been so valorized by capitalist societies; he claims that the drive toward “perfection” has led to the loss of manhood and has transformed men into feminized purchasers and consumers who slave away in life-draining jobs.

By randomly destroying property (with which members of consumerist society identify), Tyler intends to explode the foundations of capitalist “identity.”  Since Rousseau and Hegel, it has been assumed that the bourgeois self is divided into civil and private dimensions: the citizen and the “true” individual.  Here we encounter two analogous versions of a single self: Whenever the narrator (who subserves capitalist society) falls asleep, Tyler Durden (who represents the “authentic” self) inhabits his body.

Tyler and the narrator form a masculine unit that exists apart from the feminized support groups that are populated by man-women such as Bob, an estrogen-saturated former weight-lifter who sprouts what appear to be mammary glands, as well as Marla Singer (associated, at one point, with the narrator’s mother), who appropriates the narrator’s support groups and eventually unsettles the homoerotic / homosocial bond between the two men.

Tyler founds “fight club,” an underground boxing organization and a perverse version of the support group attended by the narrator.  The split between the bourgeois and authentic selves is replicated in the difference between one’s work existence and fight club: “Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world” [49].  Fight club thus opens up a separate space, one that is divorced from the dependency and servility of the world of exchange; it posits a self-sufficient universe in which control and mastery, sovereignty and force are achieved, paradoxically, through self-destruction.  The fights are not based on personal acrimony but on the exercise of power.  It is the fight that is pure; it is through the fight that one’s human implications are drawn out.  Norms learned from television (that mass accumulation is life’s goal, that success is equatable with financial success, that violence must be shunned)—all of these values are reversed in fight club, the sole objective of which is the reclamation of one’s manhood, which has been diminished in the feminizing world of capitalism (hence the phallic imagery that crystallizes throughout the novel).

The constituents of fight club (copy-center clerks, box boys, etc.) are members of the Lumpenproletariat, those who labor without a productive or positive relation to work, who are estranged from their own slavery, and who are excluded from every social totality.  Even those on the higher levels of the bourgeoisie, it seems, conform to the same model.  Their strength is vitiated; they, too, function as the refuse of a society that refuses to acknowledge them.  Dying in offices where their lives are never challenged (and therefore lacking anything with which to contrast with life), they are the mere shadows of the proletariat, deprived of access not merely to the fortunes of the capitalist world, but also to consciousness of their own oppression: They are “[g]enerations [that] have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” [49].

Eventually, fight club transcends and operates independently of the individuals who produced it (following Tyler’s anti-individualist creed) and becomes wholly acephalic: “The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club” [142].  Fight club thus transmutes into Project Mayhem, a revolutionary group that begins with acts of vandalism and food contamination and eventually expands into full-blown guerilla terrorism.  Its aim is regression: to reduce all of history to ground zero.  Project Mayhem wants to blow the capitalist world to smithereens in order to give birth to a new form of humanity.  What fight club did for selfhood and individuality (the formation of a new “identity” apart from the one mandated by capitalist society), Project Mayhem would do for capitalist society itself.  In the same manner that fight club destroys capitalist “identity,” Project Mayhem aims to destroy Western civilization in order to “make something better of the world” [125]—a world in which manhood would intensify through a non-moral relation to violence.

Here we are in territory already elaborated—much more richly—by J.G. Ballard.  And John Zerzan, Portland anarchist.

Washing oneself clean, returning to one’s hidden origin, primitivism, regressionism, cleansing, and sacrifice…  Soap, which Freud named “the yardstick of civilization,” is here emblematic of a reduction to primal manhood.  The meaning of soap is not, in this context, propriety (as Freud would have it), nor, unfortunately, the ebullitions of language (Francis Ponge), nor, following Roland Barthes, the luxury of foaminess.  Soap is indissociable from sacrifice.

[Fight Club does not merely imply, but states in the most obvious manner that bare-knuckled fist-fighting makes one more virile, more masculine.  Palahniuk’s jock-fascism is jockalicious.]

If Western culture, as Freud claims in Unbehagen in der Kultur, is a culture of soap (sanitizing one from the awareness of death), the accustomed meaning of saponification is here transformed into its opposite.  Western culture represses the sacrifices that were its origins through a process of cleansing: Soap here would indicate a return to those repressed sources.  Violence must be re-vived in order to reclaim the self, now unclean.

The dream of capitalism complements the dream of fascism: “We wanted to blast the world free of history” [124].  Their common project is dehistoricization.  By attempting to destroy history, Project Mayhem pretends to break with the capitalist world but ends up mirroring it.  Capitalist culture homogenizes all of its inhabitants until individuality is lost—its alternative, communism, would lead, theoretically, to the redistribution of wealth and the elimination of rank.  Neither is accepted by Fight Club.  Nor, for that matter, are the utopian primitivism and fascistic terrorism represented by Project Mayhem.  The refusal of the capitalist / communist / fascist alternatives does not imply nihilism, either.  Fight Club posits nothing other than the impossibility of a way out.  This is evident in the text.  When the narrator attempts to demolish the fascist version of his self, his phantom double remerges.  Neither capitalism nor its double is overcome.  Tragedy is not death, the liberation from all forms of the political; it is, rather, the impossibility of dying.

* * * * *

A few words on the form of Fight Club (the only section of this review that will be read).

This could have been an excellent novel.

Any strong writer knows that a dead page–a dead paragraph, a dead sentence, a dead word–is unacceptable.  Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be electric, vibrant, vivacious.  Fight Club moves in the exact opposite direction: Its prose is soul-deadening, life-negating, dull.  It is a prose that neither confronts nor challenges.

Chuck Palahniuk does not have an easy way with words.  The language of this book is metallic, anti-poetic, and illiterate.

The writer claims to write in the way that “people talk.”

This would be good advice if we lived in an age in which people knew how to talk.

Joseph Suglia




Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer / SNUFF by Chuck Palahniuk / A Review of SNUFF by Chuck Palahniuk

On SNUFF (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

If it sustained itself over countless eternities, a roomful of typing monkeys would eventually recreate every library in the world, reproducing every word in every volume.  This theorem, known as the “infinite-monkey hypothesis,” could also be applied to Snuff (2008) by chuckpalahniuk.  After vomiting eight completely worthless books, each a static repetition of the one before, chuckpalahniuk has finally generated something worthy of being read, much in the same way that an eternal scriptorium of monkeys would also generate at least some books that are worthy of being read.

While I am not an admirer of his previous fiction, Snuff does something that chuckpalahniuk’s earlier efforts failed to do: It addresses the conditions of its possibility and reception.  Here we have a hive of drones waiting to consume the body of their pornographic priestess.  They are very much like those who consume Snuff–an unintelligent, slovenly, shallow, hastily written, messily constructed McFiction sandwich larded with an impasto of moldy tartar sauce.

The words “dude” and “kid” are used more than any others, the font is so large that your grandmother could read it through her cataracts, and the “research,” such as it is, extends no further than Google.  Not merely is chuckpalahniuk’s language impoverished in relation to that of other published writers; he is not even able to write on the level of a sentient adult.  Indeed, the “author,” a forty-six-year-old man at the time he disgorged this vomitous book, writes as if he were any unremarkable twelve-year-old American boy.  Here are some representative examples of chuckpalahniuk’s prose:

“Those tests that Shelia had dudes take, the clinic reports most dudes had to bring, none of that’s foolproof” (128).

“The locker-room smell of some dude’s bare feet, we breathe that smell like [sic] those cheeses [sic] from France that smell like your sneakers in high school that you’d wear in gym class all year without washing them” (52).

“High school,” indeed.

It is depressing that chuckpalahniuk has yet to craft a style.  One might claim that his infantile, ungrammatical manner of expression IS a style, that he is only miming the illiterate stupidity of his characters.  If that is the case, why does every one of chuckpalahniuk’s characters sound exactly like the next, giving the form and body of his work the disturbing appearance of an unsynchronized Christmas carol sung by a chorus of stuttering lobotomy patients?  chuckpalahniuk’s syntax is irritating, tedious, inane, and torturous to read: SUBJECT + PRONOUN + VERB + OBJECT.

If read as a work of art, one will fail to do justice to this book.  Snuff is by no means art; it is a cultural production, and like all cultural productions, resonates with the time and place in which it was written.  Despite his intellectual and rhetorical shortcomings, chuckpalahniuk has succeeded in producing something that perfectly captures the cultural moment.

Joseph Suglia

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer / RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

RANT (“Chuck” Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Even “Chuck” Palahniuk’s most devoted followers will have a hard time getting through Rant (2007), a book about thrill-seeking that is devoid of a single thrill.  As insipid as they are, at least Palahniuk’s other books are EZ-2-Read.  Rant, however, is not merely stupid–it is also deadeningly, mind-numbingly tedious.  While trudging through its pages, the essence of boredom was revealed to me.

RANT is compacted of endlessly babbling voices.  Each voice narrates a piece of Buster Casey’s life, a Typhoid Mary who has spread rabies across the United States.  But there is nothing new to be learned about Casey after the sixth page (Pages One through Six are titled, imaginatively, “An Introduction”) and what we do know is never vividly or convincingly described.  To be absolutely explicit: The plot doesn’t move.  It stagnates.  There is no progression.  No motor drives the narrative.  Nothing is narrated between Pages Seven through 319 that hasn’t been narrated in the first six pages.

Anything that seems to be remotely original comes from somewhere else.  The book’s epigraph was pilfered from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), the oral-biographical structure was pillaged from Stephen King (Carrie), the “Party Crashers” narrative was fobbed wholesale from J.G. Ballard’s Crash, a narrative that dominates the book to such an extent that it would have been better titled Ballard for Kindergarteners or Ballard Made EZ.  (Casey is Vaughan from Crash.  Yes, there is repetition in Crash, but it is repetition with purpose, repetition with nuance, repetition with difference.  Here, there is only the infinite repetition of the Same.)  The Tarzanesque pseudo-sentence “How the future you have tomorrow won’t be the same future you had yesterday” (Pages Four and 253) was pocketed from French poet and thinker Paul Valery (“The problem with the present is that the future is no longer what it used to be”).  The illiterately worded statement “History is, it’s just a nightmare” (p. 60) was lifted directly from Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  (Not that Palahniuk has read Valery or Marx, mind you. He has admitted that his information largely comes from talking to those he meets at parties and from his followers.)  Even the rabies motif was thieved.  David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976), anyone?

Rant is littered with pop-nihilistic syllogisms, statements of the obvious that are presented as “deep truths”: “Rant meant that no one is happy, anywhere” (p. 12).  Who doesn’t know that car-salesmen mimic the body language of potential clients?

The subhuman prose is even more galling than the book’s content.  Nearly every other sentence contains a double subject.  For instance: “The flight attendant, she asks this hillbilly what’s it he wants to drink” (p. 2).  A slightly less awkward, slightly less annoying, grammatical way of writing the “sentence” would be: “The flight attendant asks a hillbilly what he would like to drink.”  Palahniuk, however, insists on multiplying the subjects in his sentences ad nauseam, with unbearably irritating results.  Palahniuk’s defendants claim that he isn’t really as dimwitted as he seems to be, that his narrators are merely functionally illiterate.  If that is the case, they must explain why Palahniuk interviews in a functionally illiterate manner, why he writes “essays” in a functionally illiterate manner, and why every character in his universe is functionally illiterate, including those who hold doctorates.  If Palahniuk is merely impersonating a lobotomized orangutan on heroin, why would he write essays and speak in exactly the same simian language?

And so we have the grating misusage of the word “liminal”–over and over and over and over again…  We have Phoebe Truffeau, Ph.D., who uses phrases such as “prohibitions to [sic] bestiality” (p. 82).  We have teachers who say things such as “That Elliot girl, she told me the Tooth Fairy left [the coin] in exchange for a tooth she’d lost” (p. 52) and “Money you don’t work to earn, you spend very quickly” (p. 54).  We have Lowell Richards, teacher, who uses the phrase “indirectly and obliquely” (p. 99).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to write as “the smart people” do, he reveals himself as a half-wit.

And we have unspeakably hideous sentence fragments such as: “The ice melt and disappear” (p. 2).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to revise a cliche, such as Andy Warhol’s overly cited declaration “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” he comes up with a monstrosity: “In the future, everyone will sit next to someone famous for at least fifteen minutes” (p. 5).  Palahniuk’s revision makes no sense: I’m assuming that “everyone” includes “the famous,” which implies, of course, that in the future, the famous will also sit next to the famous.

Perhaps most offensively, Rant croaks out, in a particularly infantile passage, that AIDS is a “disease” that has been “spread” by a single carrier–that it is a “disease” like any other disease–when, in fact, AIDS is a syndrome of diseases, a pandemic, for which no single individual is accountable.

Allegedly, “Rant” refers to the sound that babies make when they vomit.  Now, I’ve never actually heard a baby make such a noise, but perhaps one should take the “author” at his word.  The title seems perfectly appropriate.  Simplistic, stupid, superficial, tedious, and derivative, Rant is the verbal equivalent to chunks of infantile regurgitate.

The same could be said of all of Palahniuk’s “works,” which are not based on the imagination (the “author” seemingly has no imagination whatsoever), but rather on whatever he is leafing through at the present moment.  As I stated above: Palahniuk has admitted that his books are collages of interviews he has had with random people in bars and at parties, as well as the four or five non-fiction books he leases from his local public library every time he sits down to write a “novel.”  The rest of the information is “Googled.”

Regrettably, Palahniuk is an incompetent “borrower.”  There is often the question, in his books, of relevancy. In Survivor, there is a longish passage on lobster-eating that was apparently lifted word for word from a book on dining etiquette.  What, precisely, does this passage have to do with Survivor‘s narrative?  Answer: Absolutely nothing.

Palahniuk wrote Lullaby in three weeks. I’m not entirely certain how much time it took him to disgorge Rant.  My guess would be two weekends.  I don’t say this to praise Palahniuk, as if he were capable of fashioning a well-crafted novel in two weekends with the dexterity of a Picasso, who could toss off a painting in an afternoon.  Rant is writing-workshop trash.  It reads as if it were a live-journal or Web log written by a subnormal high-school stoner, retched out and fraught with galling errors.

Palahniuk’s followers worship their leader as if he were a god.  But God is not an artist.

Neither is Chuck Palahniuk.

Dr. Joseph Suglia