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.