Chuck Palahniuk is the go-to guy if you want to lose your lunch. He, perhaps more than any other contemporary author, is infamous for his twisted situations and shuddering attention to detail. His latest offering, “Haunted,” is ambitious in its attempt but still doesn’t stray far from his formula (sick mind + gross sitation = gold!). Like his own sequencing, the story skitters in several directions, but eventually braids together to a disappointing conclusion. But, at the same time, “Haunted” is also the most honest idea he’s ever written.
The story concerns an isolated writers’ retreat, which quickly dissolves into paranoid hysteria and absolutely no productivity. The wannabe scribes pass the time by scarfing prepackaged meals, complaining at length and crafting largely autobiographical anecdotes with single-minded intensity. (This I can relate to.) Their tales are the only indication of their pasts before the spooky vacation, and are as far into characterization as Palahniuk gets; this assures that we never relate to the characters, because most only exist in the meta-level of their own creativity (i.e. fiction within fiction). So when they start getting hacked up and gobbled down – and trust me, no detail is spared – it’s hard to sympathize with them. (One exception: the boy who chewed through his own intestinal tract. It’s hard not to pity that scenario.)
But squeamish, take rest; “Haunted” is disturbing, but no more violent than his past novels. It’s less anarchistic than “Fight Club,” less sexually aggressive than “Choke” – and its narration is a bold move. Gone are most of the short, choppy sentences and the portentiousness that accompanied them. (I think I just made up a word, but I’m pretty sure he does that, too.) Aside from an unsatisfying, weak conclusion and truly annoying conclusive anecdote (Venus is the new Earth, apparently), the book is an engaging read of kinetic thoughts. And in its 400-plus pages, Palahniuk exposes a completely new idea: Writers are liars.
Or, at least, they are manipulative and desperate, and his admission of this elevates the otherwise unremarkable plot. It’s so true, it hurts; in “Haunted,” the gang of writers worsen and compound their problems so they can tell a better saga upon their escape (they even thwart each chance to leave their hell because it interferes with the cinematic ending of being “found”). The scenes in which they purposefully destroy their surroundings reveal the true mania of writers; they will twist and mutilate their surroundings (not always literally, though) in the hopes of creating an unforgettable story and receiving the world’s adoration.
This is something I’ve discovered since starting college: writers live by their own narration, which makes boring surroundings the ultimate curse. Wanting better material is a given but, probably more than any other profession, that competitiveness will shape more than a career. This is why “Haunted” rang so true; its characters intentionally heighten their situations for their pens, and Palahniuk is one of the first to acknowledge that ambition.
This drive is one I recognize in myself, and it’s unsettling how I don’t understand it. (Then again, neither do others; after my string of degrading social experiments last year, culminating with the “Follow the Rules” fiasco, my friend James still refuses to trust me.) That’s why I’m still thinking about “Haunted” – because it explains me. And if you’re a writer, chances are it explains you, too. This newly exposed undercurrent behind stories is so strong; authors become dependent on the sharp phrasing of events, to the point that they become an internal monologue. (Do mathematicians think in primes?) And nothing matches the panic of those words running dry. On a good day, snarky “bon mots” for stories (and, in some cases, columns) consistently pop until they cloud what’s actually happening.
So, I’ve had a revelation: this accounts for why I am frequently, maddeningly impulsive. I’ve been constructed from my own profession, and brought to my realizations from that path. I feel the need to have a more exciting life than, say, you – and there’s a good chance I don’t even know you, but I need the story more. (And if I do know you, I’ve probably already entangled you in something reckless and stupid, so my apologies.) After reading “Haunted,” my ego is pretty bruised, but I’m wondering if that’s a good thing. Our daily interactions are so staid; awhile ago, I figured that those moments of unprocessed passion are the best shot at transcendence. And I’ll take them, and the words that will follow.
So, “Haunted” rang clear; maybe it will illuminate you. And stay away from writers, because we’re all more than a little insane.
Stacey Anderson is a journalism and music senior, KCPR DJ and somewhat friendly ghost. Catch her Sundays 7 to 8 p.m. and Thursdays 3 to5 p.m. on 91.3 FM or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.