Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review: Diary

After the cinematic brilliance that is Fight Club came out, I borrowed my brother’s copy of the novel to read.  After that I stole my brother’s copy of Survivor, loved it, and was forever more captivated.  I can’t remember if Choke or Lullaby came next for me.  Doesn’t really matter cause I loved them both.  And now, true to form, I loved Diary.  But before I get into that, a couple words on the author.

Chuck describes his writing as transgressive meaning that it focuses on characters who are outsiders, living on the fringes, and therefore usually rebel against cultural and societal norms in very controversial ways.  For those of you interested in the philosophical debate on whether or not literature should be censored this is definitely the genre for you because these novels have been in the foreground of this debate for centuries.  (Check it out if you’re interested.)

The history of the man himself, his involvement with rebellious actions and behaviors, and the personal events that (I assume) helped to shape why he writes what he writes is all fascinating and totally beyond the realm of this review.  I definitely encourage to look into him, his work, and what’s so fascinating about him.

But it is the writing and not the man that makes me love these books.  The characters he makes up all manage to walk the fine line between the unimaginably disturbing and the disturbingly familiar.  It’s the age-old fascination with monsters and murders that requires the creator to both alienate and endear the characters to the reader.  This is a balancing act that Palahniuk does very well.  Every single character I’ve read has been both psychologically unsettling and personally familiar.  I not only judge them as irreparably fucked up but also relate to them.  This is terribly unsettling since it would be comforting to just dismiss the whole thing and console yourself that you have nothing in common with these characters and their psychotic existence.  But you can’t because that thought or that emotion is too similar to something you’ve thought or felt and it draws you in and keeps you turning the page.

And the plots, of course, make the characters what they are.  They’ve all been buried under an avalanche of crap before the first page and that’s part of why you relate.  ‘How well would I cope,’ you think, ‘it that happened to me?’  The answer, always, is ‘not too well’.  Cause that’s the thing about extraordinary circumstances- they push you past your limits and you do things you didn’t think you were capable of doing.  Of course, Palahniuk’s worlds are always far more twisted than you can ever imagine they will be at the first page and the way that he gets down to the really messed up nature of the story is a thing to behold.  It’s like peeling back an onion- layer by layer it’s hard to keep your eyes open but you can’t help but want to keep going.

Another thing that seems particular to Palahniuk is his flair for throwing all these strange little facts at you.  His characters always know things that are… odd.  Everything from graphology to the ins and outs of support groups to the age of the laugh tracks on sitcoms.  Strange little factoids that clue you in to who a particular character is and add an unsettling layer to the content of the story.  At first, these just seem like quirks but as the story evolves you see how they’re connected to themes of the greater story arc and the climax of the individual characters.

Add to all that the minimalistic style he’s so famous for and you’ve got yourself a Chuck Palahniuk novel.  His writing is more like a series of interconnected poems than a typical novel.  The short, choppy sentences.  The repeating words and sounds.  The way it prevents you from falling into any kind of natural flow as you’re reading by throwing in these short, truncated sentences just when you started to develop a rhythm.  Almost as if he sensed you getting comfortable and purposefully disrupted the pattern just to mess with you.  It gives you the feeling of being in a really precarious position: always just a little off center, a little unbalanced.

Diary has all of these tell-tale signs: the characters are irrevocably messed up and the circumstances they start out in are devastating.  The main character herself is a case study in borderline madness and her questioning of reality is the key to the reader’s buy in.  The more clues we get the more confused we become until the questions she’s asking and the things she’s perceiving cause us to wonder and question the same things. 

The main thematic concept here is one that is near and dear to me: the line between creativity and madness and whether or not one can exist without the other.  Under normal circumstances my opinions on this topic tend to be pretty reasonable but within the distorted reality of this story it’s hard not to fall into the theoretical quandary.  Especially when her own creativity emerges only when she is pushed to the brink.

On a deeper level, the circumstances serve for a look at contemporary reality and the role that art plays in consumerism, financial status and what makes or breaks a community.  There are questions about family, community, sacrifice, betrayal and inspiration that fold into the bigger mystery and leave you guessing about the end.  And, just when you think it’s over, he throws in one last page that changes the whole context of the story.  The critics all rave that this is as close to a mystery as he’s ever written and I would agree.  But it’s got the familiar trademarks that make the rest of his library of work so fascinating.

I highly suggest that you check out any of Mr. Palahniuk’s books for any number of reasons, even just plain old curiosity.  This book in particular is great as a stand alone since it’s self contained and doesn’t require any pre-existing knowledge base.  But then again, all of his books are pretty much like that.  It’s the most fascinating kind of madness and it keeps you coming back for more.

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