Hot Damned!

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

(the following interview was written for v man and can be found on their website here)

Mutton-chopped from here to eternity in a cultivated aesthetic that can really only be verbalized as Jack The Ripper-esque, cult author Chuck Palahniuk is now as recognizable for his look, plucked out of some 19th-century-London photofit, as he is for his uncompromising literary technique—a willingness to push forward with divisive and taboo subjects without trepidation and with obvious relish. Recently, however, he decided to lose the chops. This month sees the release of Damned, his twelfth novel to date, the newest in a long line of controversial literary endeavors that push hard and fast on the buttons of all moral authority. Still: antagonist, award-winning author, incontestable talent, or Cult Hero—label him what you will–Palahniuk is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with.Damned, out now from Random House, deals head-on with the premise of Hell; not just in ideology or concept, but as a very real place. But is there really a distinction? “Here I’m paraphrasing St. Thomas Aquinas or some other righteous somebody,” he ventures, “but ‘Hell is the path you take yourself down that’s not the path God had planned for you.’ Hell is a big detour away from your life’s mission.” It’s all relative then, so what does “Hell” mean to Palahniuk himself? “My Hell, and that of my characters, is usually—okay, always—a Hell of the physical body versus the mind or emotions. So Hell is when you guzzle sherry when you know you ought to be writing your symphony. Or when you smoke the skunkweed when you should be writing your screenplay.”
Two of Palahniuk’s novels have already been made in to big-deal Hollywood movies and he’s been afforded the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award twice (one for Fight Club, one for Lullaby). Yet despite seeing his previous titles brought to life on the silver screen with the help of Brad Pitt and Sam Rockwell, as well as what one can only assume is fast becoming a very shiny mantlepiece, the author isn’t a booming bestseller or a cash cow. He’s not, and never will be, Dan Brown. And he knows that. How does he feel about constantly being prefixed with the word ‘cult’? “You tell me.” he answers, obviously well aware of this phenomenon. “It’s not as if I’m an authority on ‘success.’ Or cults. Ask some marketing person-someone who invented these distinctions. Perhaps using the modifier ‘cult’ preserves the ‘street cred’ of a writer who has made it onto the bestseller lists.” I get the feeling he knows where he stands and that he’s more than okay with it, “But if I were a real success,” he muses “I’d have flunkies peeling grapes and dropping them into my mouth, and I wouldn’t be forced to refill my own sherry glass every three minutes.”
Whether he’s planning to lead three or four hundred gullible nitwits into group suicide or not, the cult moniker has stuck, and it does have some advantages: leeway for one. The shock-factor in his novels gets a little extra room to breathe and he’s happy to take full advantage of that–surely, it can’t be a coincidence that at a time of powerful right-wing religious resurgence, he’s chosen to taken on theology as a subject. “Good-hearted Christian readers got a huge treat with those ‘Left Behind’ books: novels set in a post-Rapture world where sinners fought violently for a final chance at salvation. Lots of blood and horror, but it was okay because they were the damned folks who were going to Hell, anyway. God hated them so it was fine to torture them as characters.” So, this novel is a counter attack? “I just think that secular humanists ought to have a similar fiction franchise where liberals get to reinvent theology.” But Damned is more than just a Fuck You to the Bachmanns and Palins of pop culture-it’s been carefully considered from all sides, meticulously plotted down to the smallest detail. “Damned follows a classic form,” Palahnuik explains, “an innocent character is thrust into a new environment and must adapt quickly. In Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret the narrator is relocated from New York City to some dismal suburban no-place, where she waits in dread of her impending menses. In The Shawshank Redemption a small-town banker finds himself in prison and must wait in dread for forced butt sex. I could name a million examples of this form, and it resonates with everyone’s first day on a new job or in a new school. InDamned I just chose the worst possible place you could find yourself.”Asking anything of Chuck Palahniuk—even if he isn’t in the room when you’re asking–feels a lot like boxing with Charles Bronson: you know what you’ve asked and you know what sort of reply you should expect. All that aside, you still can’t help but feel as though he’s just waiting for the right moment to butt you…hard…and right in the face. It’s this no-holds-barred approach to narrative and character development that singles him out from his contemporaries: it’s why Victor Mancini, Tyler Durden and Madison are all somehow more contemptible than Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman-these constructs aren’t just deeply flawed human beings (who isn’t?), but they’re flawed in such a way that it becomes hard to empathise with them, and even harder to pity them. “Is that the ultimate goal—to create a character whom readers pity?” I get the impression it isn’t, or at least it isn’t high on his list of priorities, “Quick, someone tell Ayn Rand,” he quips, confirming this impression.

At this stage of his career, Palahniuk is a seasoned professional. He knows that as much as it’s fine for his readers to dislike, or even detest, his creations, there has to be room for them to claw something back; to reclaim some relatable part of their humanity. “The three-act structure,” he’s a big fan of Dante’s seminal work he says, “and patterning the three ‘Madison’ books after the Divine Comedy gives me Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to demonstrate a huge redemption, not just for Madison, but for all of humanity. By the end of the third book, we’ll have a new meta-narrative covering damnation, redemption and salvation.” This is a bold claim—high falutin, even—but it’s not a patch on what comes next: “The secular humanist will be united with the Creationist. The Liberal will embrace the Conservative. All religions will melt together.” Here comes the head-butt: “All peoples will fell akin with one another in a celebration of joy not seen since the United Benneton ad campaigns of the 1980′s.” Black eye. “I cry simply thinking about how good those books will be. You should cry, too. Now if I can just stay off the damned sherry, I might actually finish writing the next two books.” Broken Nose.


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