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Saturday, June 19, 2004


I am Jack's gossipy fanbase

As promised, here's a long, meandering post about Wednesday's Chuck Palahniuk reading.

I'm somewhat ashamed to say I'm a fan of this literary hometown hero. While "voice" is entirely original and his work has appealed to people who usually shun bookstores, there's no escaping the fact that a lot of what he's written is muddled thematically, overblown and often times absurdly over the top. While I stand by Fight Club and like to think of it as one of the most important novels written in the last 10 years, I can't help but slap the rest of his catalog with a resounding "eh."

Despite a slow first act, Survivor was still a kick in the pants and the little notice Fugitives and Refugees is an interesting history lesson about Portland's seedier side. As for the rest, well, it's just not very good. The best analogy I can come up with is that Palahniuk is the Kevin Smith of the literary circuit. His first release was astounding (yes, I think Clerks was astounding. Tbbbt!) and everything since has been a pale comparison. His work is always entertaining and highly readable but I always find myself thinking, "Jesus Christ, enough with the grim Google search trivia."

Regardless of these reservations, I attended the reading at the First Unitarian Church. The last time I saw Palahniuk in person was three weeks before the movie version of Fight Club was released in theaters. A handful of roughly 20 people, all middle-aged Hillsdale book club types, showed up. Most of them laughed nervously and stared at their shoes as the author cut loose with several gritty anecdotes about working as a volunteer nurse's assistant for AIDs patients.

Five years later, the man is an institution and beloved by a fanbase he's affectionately dubbed "The Cult." The Palahniuk brand has now stretched to video games, documentaries, sold-out writing workshops, and, yes, a possible musical. On Wednesday night, Palahniuk drew a crowd of hundreds and packed nearly every seat at the First Unitarian Church on 12th. Most well-established authors on tour are lucky to fill the tiny area set aside on the fourth floor of Powell's Books. When Hillary Clinton was in town a few years back, she hit the downtown Borders. The only other author that I can think of that's managed to pack the rafters of a church was Dave Eggers in 2002.

Instead of Baby Boomers, the crowd consisted almost entirely of 20-somethings and Suicide Girls. It was a muggy, 90 degree night and the place had no air conditioning. Palahniuk rolled through a few, quick anecdotes before reading a chapter from his next major release, Haunted. Beforehand, he asked that no one reveal the plot on the internet so I'll just say it the story involved an overworked, underappreciated county secretary and her "friendships" with a ravaged CPR doll and an apartment full of neglected stuffed animals. The chapter was 19 pages long and was nasty enough to make the fans in attendance shift uncomfortably in their seats. As he said himself beforehand, the selection was "like a trip up the devil's asshole." All around, that's a dead-on analogy. This is probably the bleakest piece of writing I've ever encountered.

Afterwards, Palahniuk sliced through the awkwardness by asking if a certain fan was there. She waved her hands and he cracked opened a black garbage bag filled with Beanie Babies. A tiny little frenzy ensued as random attendees waved their arms frantically to score one of the stuffed animals. Another bag was filled with gigantic, florescent flowers. He bought 70 of them from a southeast novelty shop, half of which he claimed are still at his beach house. Everyone who asked a question was rewarded with a flower.

During the Q&A, the author revealed his thoughts on the Fight Club video game, which many fans have criticized, given the anti-capitalist source material. His response was apologetic but he stated, honestly that he doesn't even watch TV, doesn't keep up on these things and its awfully tempting to a sign on the dotted line for an easy paycheck. Given the type of despondent literature he writes, is there really any excusing this?

Later, he broke the news that I shot off to various movie sites. He and David Fincher, the director of the film adaptation, have discussed the possibilities of Fight Club: The Musical. Fincher is supposedly ecstatic about the idea and wants to involved. Palahniuk quoted him as saying, "Can you imagine people in New Jersey paying $120 to drive to the city and watch a musical about anarchy?"

Yeah, it's probably not the best premise for that sort thing. On the other hand, was Phantom of the Opera?

Afterwards, I waited in line for 45 minutes to have him sign a gift for Father's Day- a copy of Fugitives and Refuges. The Powell's employee working as a sort of bouncer jotted his name down on a yellow Post-It-Note and then, surprisingly, slapped a " property of prison library" stamp on several pages.

As I handed the author the book, I said it was a gift. He responded accordingly by writing, "Enjoy life on the outside! Stay clean! Chuck Palahniuk." Next the stamp he jotted "Caught you!"

That "stay clean" line worries me. Will ol' Dad get the gag?
I'll be putting it in a Care Bears gift bag along with a Father's Day card I found in the Spanish section of Hallmark.

A happy Father's Day to all and to all a good night!

PS: I was sitting in the nose-bleed, thus the blurry picture.

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