Adam Mansbach 2008

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Chuck Palahniuk
404 pages

From one of America’s smartest purveyors of the macabre comes Haunted, the seventh fictional outing from Chuck Palahniuk. It is a novel only in name. More accurate would be to call the book a series of stories linked by a filament of plot, and more accurate than that would be to call It “Chuck Palahniuk Cleans Out His Closet.”

Had these been stand-alone stories, the collection would have been mixed. Palahniuk’s ability to viscerally disgust a reader with imaginative, gorey set-pieces is still unparalleled, and the conceptual engines that drive his stories are often compelling. Too many of these pieces, though, can easily be reduced to just that formula: off-beat concepts spun out to their gross conclusions – conclusions usually preordained by the fundamental amorality of humankind. Many of them read like sketches for novels, discarded because they were too thin and then reinvented as short fiction.

But not as Palahniuk’s short fiction. Instead, the stories that comprise Haunted are presented as the work of twenty-three separate writers who have answered an advertisement for a writers’ retreat. Amazingly, though, every single member of this motley crew of damaged scribes happens to write exactly like Chuck Palahniuk, whose gimmicky, macho prose is anything but inconspicuous. The lack of any attempt to grant these narrators voices of their own is the reader’s first clue that Palahniuk’s investment in Haunted may be less than total.

Quickly finding themselves inprisioned in a hulking, ornate theater, the writers are left with nothing but their stories and each other – and the communal fantasy that when rescued, they will all enjoy fame and prosperity as survivors of such a grueling ordeal, and sell their stories to Hollywood. Thus, as a means of upping their talk-show capital, they set about destroying the theater’s heating system, their own food supply, and ultimately themselves, with the help of a set of butcher’s knives provided by a character named Chef Assassin. Even in a book overbrimming with viscera, one of Haunted’s crassest ideas is that all writers are in it for the fame and fortune.

We hear, in turn, from aspiring authors with names like Director Denial, Miss America, the Duke of Vandals, and Agent Tattletale. Each story is preceded by a poem about the author, and each poem by a chapter’s worth of present action, written in the seldom-a-good-idea first person plural. The body counts, self-mutilations, and microwaved body parts add up, but the stories continue unabated. The characters don’t much care who lives or dies – one less way to split the royalties – and neither does the reader. Palahniuk’s cast is so large and unwieldy that it’s difficult to remember what degree of revulsion we’re supposed to maintain for whom. Interchangeable in their degradation, no one is memorable.

Some of the stories, however, are. Framing devices and narrative issues aside, Palahniuk can still dream up truly retch-worthy scenarios. Haunted’s standout moment comes in its leadoff piece, “Guts,” a story by Saint Gut-Free in which the protagonist’s intestines are sucked out of his body by a swimming pool’s suction pump. In some sense, the story sets the bar too high; no number of flash-boiled bodies, war-sex-criminals, or Bigfoot murderfests can match “Guts” in terms of sheer inducement to nausea.

The multi-part story Mrs. Clark writes about her daughter, whose life is ruined after she looks into a “nightmare box,” is another highlight. Palahniuk invests more deeply in its characters than he does elsewhere, and the result is a vivid, suspenseful set-piece – one that doesn’t feel like a mere run-up to some climactic gross-out.

At Palahniuk’s best – in the subversive cult classic Fight Club, or the twisted mystery Diary – trenchant and wryly observed social commentary lies beneath the surface gore; the perversity at the core of our beings is what’s really on display. The ideas that underwrite Haunted, though, are too pedestrian to probe such depths: the assertion that we need to demonize others in order to make sense of our lives, and the fact that all of us (the narratorial “us,” at any rate) are desparate, eager comsumers of the misery of others. Repeated endlessly – one of Palahniuk’s many stylistic ticks is the use of refrains – these notions do not take on additional layers of profundity. Rather, they shrink until they read like hollow maxims.

The ideas that serve as spines for many of the more socially-ambitious stories are just as weak. The central premise of “Slumming”, by Lady Baglady, is that ‘poverty is the new nobility.’ It follows a cast of elderly socialites as they luxuriate in pretending to be homeless. With such a derivative, obvious inversion as its reason for being, the story never goes anywhere. “Footwork” by Mother Nature imagines an underground world of reflexologists whose anatomical expertise is so profound that the ultra-rich hire them to perform earth-shakingly orgasmic foot massages. Things get complicated when foot-prostitution gives way to foot-murder, but the story never makes the leap from whimsical to compelling.

Palahniuk will do better work than this – and given his novel-a-year pace, chances are he will do it soon. Haunted feels like something he had to get out of his system (and plenty of other, less appealing stuff is expelled from other systems throughout the novel, to be sure) -- a gaggle of intruiging-to-middling ideas he had to write his way through in order to move on. Hardcore fans might find enough vintage moments here to make it worth their while, but the rest of us won’t be haunted at all.

Adam Mansbach is the author of Angry Black White Boy, or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing