Let’s talk about Survivor. You know, ‘Risin’ Up – Back on the Streets‘. This song defined a generation and it’s about time the goddamn guys who wrote and performed it received the accolades they deserve! Probably the -Hmrph- most important band of the decade of raygun, Survivor was the epitome of hard-working, blue collar rock-n-roll and, despite a -Hrmph- fist-pumping reception all through the early 80’s the rise of glam rock a la motley crue and poison killed the band until they essentially returned as a suburban summer fair act in the late 90’s and until today.
Give it up for a band that -Hrmpha-ha-ha-ha-is too tough to die!
Okay, no I’m kidding. Ha, I could barely keep a straight face through that one, let me tell you. Now, this article is about Survivor, but fortunately not the band. Just look at that picture – yeesh! Anyway, the Survivor I’d like to talk about today is the novel by Chuck Palahniuk*. It’s interesting, I’ve read almost all of his books but not this one. I bought it years ago and it has been sitting on my shelf since. Not that I haven’t wanted to read it off and on over the years but I’ve developed something of an interesting relationship with Mr. Palahniuk’s work and maybe this blog may be more accurately regarded as an overview of his work than simply a commentary on this one book. But let’s begin again, shall we, with Survivor.
I’m about seventy pages from the end and I’m loving it. This, however, was not the case from the beginning. You see, when I began reading Mr. Palahniuk’s stuff it wasn’t as a result of seeing and loving David Fincher’s movie adaptation of Fight Club. That put him on my radar but what really got me to the bookstore was my good friend Mr. Brown telling me about the book Lullaby. With only a mild SPOILER warning I’ll tell you what he told me that made me so interested.
Mr. Brown told me that Lullaby was about a reporter investigating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The reporter slowly realized that in every case the same childrens’ book was present – a collection of lullabies from around the world and throughout time. One is an ancient African song warriors would sing to the wounded on the plains so that, if mortally wounded, they would fall asleep and die peacefully instead of suffering a slow and painful death.
Sounds pretty wicked, eh?
So I read Lullaby and loved it and then promptly went right back to the bookstore and bought Choke, Invisible Monsters and Diary. I read all three in rapid succession and although I loved all three a funny thing happened; the reaction to each grew successively weaker. Diary, while not a bad novel by any means, was my least favorite. In the eight or so years since this binge experience I have figured out where my problems lay.
At least for the first part of his career Mr. Palahniuk wrote in a very personalized style. He has a rather particular sense of rhythm in his work and it carries the reader through his books with such momentum I’d usually finish each book in a night (and I am by no means that fast of a reader usually). If you read Lullaby, Choke, Invisible Monsters and Diary you will see that, despite all of them having very different stories they are all very, very similar in style. This is not a bad thing, but after four books in rapid succession, well, they all start to feel like the same book regardless of the why’s and wherefore’s.
I took a few years off from Chuck.
When I began working at a bookstore my boss knew I was a fan and every year starting with Rant I’d get a galley copy of the new Palahniuk novel. Rant, Snuff and Pygmy were all handed to me and as such I read them all. Rant started out as a book I seriously could not get into and one that felt gross for the sake of being gross. This meant I struggled with it for a while, but of course I gave Chuck the benefit of the doubt because A) I am a fan and B) it was the most different, stylistically, that I’d read by him yet. I ended up loving Rant because it went in such a different direction than I would have ever seen coming and when Snuff came out a year later that experience was fresh in my mind. I read Snuff in four hours and, while it was essentially a return to form for the author, I enjoyed it as a literary ‘snack’. This was in the middle of a big fiction/lit bender for me, where I read a long stream of thicker work and the four hour breeze of deranged entertainment that Snuff provided was appreciated and enjoyed.
Then came Pygmy. My god, it was so totally different than anything else not only by Chuck Palahniuk but by any author I’d ever read that I LOVED it. This was in fact a labored love though, because as the book was written in pigeon English it took some serious time to get used to navigating. But it was worth it – Pygmy made me laugh out loud quite a bit.
Fast forward to today. So there is a new Palahniuk book out that I have not read yet (I miss those galleys) called Tell No One. I have no idea what it will be like, whether it is a departure or a return once again to that Palahniuk rhythmical style. I pulled Survivor off the shelf the other night simply because – well I don’t know why. All I know is as I started reading it and found it was in that same form all those earlier books were in I was a little bummed.
But again, I give Chuck the benefit of the doubt in all things. And lucky for me that I do, because once again the book has flipped on me and around the half way mark it totally undermined my expectations and ran away with them. I remember now why that Palahniuk rhythm works so well – the story is insane and the rhythm is the only sane way for him to pull you through it. And while Survivor does utilize a lot of what I’ve come to expect in a Palahniuk novel (endless amounts of random facts, declarative adjacencies** and a rather slow reveal on certain key facts, so you are essentially figuring things out along with the narrator) Survivor also has surprised me by evolving the patterns so that as they go through countless iterations constants become sort of hollow variables to be taken up by a steady stream of new and changing constants, i.e. the way the caseworker’s place in the rhythm is taken up by the agent, is taken up by the telePrompTer, is taken up by the physical trainer, etc.
Whether in music, film, comics or literature once an artist wows me the way Mr. Palahniuk did upon my introduction to him I tend to continue to offer them the benefit of the doubt. That is, until they do something like all star batman and robin (Frank Miller I’m looking at you) and then, well, then they turn up on my sit-the-fuck-down list.
So far I have nothing but the most steadfast certainty that Chuck Palahniuk will NEVER end up on that list. Good show Chuck, keep up the great writing!!!
* I still have at least one more Lynch movie to write about, The Straight Story, as I’ve watched it recently, but that is proving to be a bit more meaty so I thought I’d step out and jot off a quick one on something else in the meantime to break things up a bit.
** My own term (or at least I’ve never heard it anywhere else before that I remember). In Palahniuk’s work for example it’s the repetition of statements such as the following that propagate to move us through the story while telling us things we don’t necessarily need to know but are adjacent to the things we need to be following:
‘My agent says this….’
‘My agent says this….’
‘My agent says this….’
If you’ve read any Palahniuk you know what I’m referring to.
Behind every great book adaptation is a forgettable first try. — By Ryan Covey