Palahniuk spars with the perverse side of life

By KEVIN LANAHAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, September 19, 2004

Writer Chuck Palahniuk pulls no punches, and those planning to attend his Tuesday visit to the New York State Writers Institute should be prepared for a knockout.

Speaking from his home outside Portland, Ore., the author of "Fight Club" sends a warning that his reading might not be for the squeamish or faint-hearted.

"The story I'm going to read has made over 50 people black out, so far," Palahniuk said. (A note from his publisher seems to confirm the statistic.) "For some people, hearing (the story) was just too much to take."

It happened on his most recent book tour, to promote "Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories" (Doubleday; 256 pages; $23.95), a collection of nonfiction essays he's written over the years for various magazines and periodicals. Though a departure from his earlier work -- Palahniuk has written seven novels -- "Stranger Than Fiction" remains true to the eccentric, even perverse themes Palahniuk's devoted fan base has come to expect: The book features an interview with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, a profile of a corpse-sniffing dog and a sad, personal look at his father's murder by a white supremacist.

Palahniuk (pronounced PAULA-nick) made his debut with 1996's "Fight Club," a black comedy about a group of frustrated young men who assemble in a kind of secret society to purge the effects of their mundane lives by beating each other senseless. David Fincher's 1999 film version, starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, is credited with helping ignite what writer Denis Lehane ("Mystic River") has described as "the new renaissance of noir."

Since that success, Palahniuk has been hailed as the torchbearer for the New Nihilism, and his books are often interpreted as diatribes against what he views as America's destructive consumer culture. His protagonists come with a heaping helping of kinks and obsessions, from the disfigured supermodel on a crime spree ("Invisible Monsters") to a sex addict who fakes near-death restaurant scenes in order to scavenge cash from those who come to his aid ("Choke").

Off the page, as well, Palahniuk is no stranger to violence and despair: In addition to his father's 1999 murder, his grandfather killed his wife before committing suicide. Even so, he says he wants readers to focus on more than just the macabre ideas and events that influence his writing.

"I think of myself as a fantastic romantic," Palahniuk said. "My characters, no matter what situation they find themselves in, are all trying to reunite with the world, with community. They're consumed by an overwhelming passion, and they use that passion to take some giant human leap forward."

Palahniuk, 42, didn't exactly explode onto the literary scene. Numerous publishers rejected his first manuscript, and "Fight Club" emerged from cult status only after the movie version was released. But since that time, Palahniuk has attracted an enormous amount of media attention, and rabid fans now construct slick-looking Web sites and shoot full-length documentaries (last year's "Postcards from the Future" is now out on DVD) in his honor.

One by one, the rights to all of his novels have sold to movie studios, but the former diesel mechanic doesn't let it go to his head. "If you focus on the attention, it can give you a false high," he said. "I focus on my writing instead."

Besides the faint-inducing short story, Palahniuk promises other interesting surprises during his visit to the New York State Writers Institute. "I always want people to see and hear something new at my readings," he said. "And I strive to engage the crowd ... and try and make it real."

Palahniuk has kept himself busy recently signing 3,000 copies of "Fight Club" to be donated to U.S. troops stationed in Iraq; his next project is a 400-page book of ghost stories strung together in a structure he likens to that of "The Canterbury Tales."

He confesses it's difficult to go out on tour when he's working on a new book. "I get stressed and sleep-deprived," he says.

The payoff: "In that condition, I come across the most fascinating ideas."

Kevin Lanahan is a free-lance writer from Clifton Park.

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Chuck Palahniuk