Chuck Palahniuk, born 21 February 1962, is one of the most popularly critiqued writers of the 21st century. His writing, which is frequently cited as both transgressional and minimalist, polarizes readers due to the graphic and physical content. Palahniuk started writing in his mid-thirties following a writer’s workshop hosted by Tom Spanbaur. From this Palahniuk was inspired by the technique of “going on the body” to write his first published short Negative Reinforcement in August of 1990. The technique of extreme physical descriptors, has attributed to the stylistic and thematic elements present in all Palahniuk writing (and what is most disturbing to the average reader). Douglas Keesey informs us “going on the body” is a involves conveying a character’s experience by describing it in very physical terms so that the reader can feel what the character feels and thus form an even closer identification with him or her”. Of the conflicting reception to the theme, Palahniuk explains, “[t]hat’s why all my stories tend to involve sex, or violence, or drugs, or illness, or accidents,[…] because they are strong visceral events that generate a sympathetic engagement from the reader.”. This emotional manipulation leads to a direct experience in the audience or readership, with many unable to stomach the more graphic material. (Keesey, 6-7). Within his visceral pattern, Palahniuk employs a minimalist approach to fiction, described by Keesey as fiction “unified around a limited number of main themes, key characters, and symbolic objects. The themes, known as “horses” because they carry the reader from the start to the end of the story, are repeated throughout the narrative, each time being illustrated in a different way” (7). This is apparent in the significant reappearance of slogans, announcements or objects. Each time they appear, more meaning is revealed. When these patterns are firmly established, Palahniuk crafts an often satirical view of Western civilization, complete with the lampooning of reality television and celebrity status, the importance of wealth, human fallibility etc.
Palahniuk has lived many lives, and it is not difficult to draw parallels between lived experience and the struggles of many of his characters. Growing up in rural American community, surrounded by both economic and identity conflict certainly wiggled its way into the bulk of his heroes. Palahniuk experienced the gruesome early in life with tales of his paternal grandfather’s murder-suicide of his wife (Palahnuik’s grandmother) revealed to him throughout his teen years. Along with the family shock, his parents long-foreseen divorce occurred as Chuck entered high school in eastern Washington State. His high school experience seems typical of the age, but certainly not the material of early John Hughes-esque films. Instead the author relates his Burbank, Washington high school to be a place of accepted date-rape, bullying and harmful identity politics. Following graduation, Palahniuk enrolled in the University of Oregon and obtained a BA in Journalism. The major was largely inspired by reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein covering the infamous Watergate Scandal. After graduating, Palahniuk was unable to sustain himself with journalism jobs and turned to mechanical work with Frieghtliner. His writing process seems to have retained much of the research required in the field of journalism. Each novel Palahniuk produces features meticulously researched and detailed accounts of even the most obscure elements.
Since entering the world of fiction writing, Palahniuk has produced roughly a book a year, starting with 1996’s Fight Club. Due to the graphic and counterculture nature of his novels, critics are largely divided on how to fit Palahniuk into the cannon of contemporary literature. Many discredit him entirely as the ultimate figure of “cheap high school nihilism” “shock-jock writing” or “angrier than it needs to be”. To this, the author affirms he is truly a romantic, and believer in community. It seems his community is a disjointed one however, with many of his heroes addicts, runaways or misfits finding peace in the unimaginable. His bibliography does not reflect the negative press, as each novel outshines skeptics in the circles that celebrate him. Whatever the opinion of his subject matter, it should be noted by all critical of him that Palahniuk is a generous figure of the contemporary literary scene. He often hosts writers workshops throughout the United States, promoting young or inexperienced authors who chose to write beyond the pale.
His current body of work:
- “Negative Reinforcement” in Modern Short Stories (1990)
- “The Love Theme of Sybil and William” in Modern Short Stories (1990)
- “Insiders” in Best Life (2007)
- “Cold Calling” unpublished (2007)
- “Love Nest” unpublished (2007)
- “Mister Elegant” in VICE Magazine (2007
- “Fetch” in Dark Delicacies III (2009)
- “Loser” in Stories (2010)
- “Knock, Knock” in Playboy (2010)
- “Romance” in Playboy (2011)
- “Phoenix” (2013)
- “Cannibal” in Playboy (2013)
- “Zombie” in Playboy (2013)
- “Let’s See What Happens” in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 37 (2015)
To review today’s visuals please visit: CP Presentation
See also: Author’s Website and/or Understanding Chuck Palahniuk by Douglas Keesey