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Esquire
Wednesday, June 30th, 2004


 

Stranger than Fiction: True Stories

by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk's America

A review by Tom Chiarella

Let's face it — some people really, really love Fight Club. For those devotees, Chuck Palahniuk is a truth-sayer. Remember his mantra: Greed consumes us, consumption numbs us, testicles are the heart of the matter. The book is still one of my guilty pleasures, allowing me to bask in the light of my favorite masturbatory emotions, indignation and regret. But the truth is, Fight Club speaks to maleness the way Billy Joel songs speak to the experience of living in New York. It's just one intellectual street corner, one sentiment.

Now, I like male writers. I keep rooting for someone to step up and assume the dubious mantle of Norman Mailer, someone bereft of the fey trickiness of Michael Chabon or Rick Moody. At one time, it seemed possible that Palahniuk had firmly planted his flag on the scrotum of the as-yet-to-arrive men's-studies movement in American letters. He certainly knows his turf. He followed Fight Club with Choke, an equally relentless ramble about men, sexual addiction, and recovery groups. But in both books, Palahniuk doesn't present ideas so much as he shin-humps them into submission. Sometimes, like the alpha wolf he wants to be, he gains a thrilling dominance over them. More often, like a horny shar-pei working your uncle's leg at a summer picnic, it seems vulgar and pointless.

Such is the case in Stranger than Fiction, Palahniuk's new collection of essays, articles, and profiles. The more obvious territory here — steroid swilling, wrestling, demolition derbys — is set so firmly in this guy's wheelhouse that you can almost hear an editor assigning them. Throughout the book, Palahniuk's lucid prose is winning. Still, it's too bad the book doesn't examine more completely the remarkable story of the murder of Palahniuk's father and the trial that followed. Instead, it's a passing detail. For the most part, Palahniuk seems unwilling to draw a single conclusion about his subject matter (except the emptiness of his own fame and the fact that he likes Amy Hempel, fights that will bloody few fists). Palahniuk shows but doesn't tell, and after a while it gets annoying. Are we presupposed to know what Palahniuk thinks about his subject matter? As a guy who tends to root for male writers, I'm sorry to say that we probably already do.


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