If William S. Burrough’s Dr. Benway and Bret Easton Ellis’s Bret Easton Ellis enjoyed a hot and sweaty tryst with Alissa Nutting’s Celeste Price who then births Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love family, then you might fully understand the manic synergy and hyperactive destruction that is the oeuvre of Portland’s prodigal son, Chuck Palahniuk. The man responsible for taking the extreme themes inherent in Transgressive Literature and applying a SPEEDY SYSTEM to sell a vast amount of books to readers of all shapes and sizes. The literary equivalent to fast food, which is no slight to the man’s work, considering that I personally enjoy both…and will feel euphorically ill after consuming them. In Chucky P’s streamlined literary world, mainstream readers are finally allowed to question their reality and search for truth and beauty in the dirty fringes of the American dream. Buckle-up Buttercup we’re going to explore some really good books.
False Facts #1: Don’t describe the labor, just show the baby…
I went to England once for six weeks in the summer of 2009. The UK owns many sights and experiences to absorb: castle ruins, pubs, jet-lag, gigantic Kit-Kat bars, weird shaped taxis, paying for things with pictures of a Queen, the VAT, etc.
The one thing that remains with me to this day is the viewing of British television. I’d always been a fan of BBC America, but to actually watch the real thing in real time was a complete treasure. At 7:15 pm, we’re all sitting around the tele watching Coronation Street, or that cop show set in the Midlands, or Only Fools And Horses. During the first commercial break the home audience is treated to a lush field of golden wheat. Wading through this ocean of yellow waves is a naked woman. The tufts of wheat gently brushing against her thighs as her hands splash the willowy tops. She glows in the sunlight, as if millions of brits aren’t at home with their children letting their dinner settle. The camera pans up and she smiles revealing a mouth full of rotten teeth.
The advert was for the British Dental Council. But I saw it for what it really was…a giant flashing billboard for what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. I thought two things:
First, that the advert was incredibly effective and made me want to go upstairs to brush and floss. (not that I actually did it but it’s the thought that counts despite what the dentist says) Secondly, it would never fly in the States. One only has to look at the outrage surrounding J. Lo and Shakira at a previous Super Bowl halftime, to understand that Americans cannot handle a women showing off her wicked sinful ankles…let alone bearing it all in an attempt to get you to floss. Sinner.
Things that make a society queasy make great transgressive stories. Several other genres dovetail here: satire, splatterpunk, noir, erotica, extreme horror, some bizarro, and some forms of Literary Fiction and beat poetry. I’m looking at you Bret Ellis and Bill Burroughs.
FALSE FACT #2: Don’t describe the baby…just show us the labor…
That is a transgressive truth in all its ugly glory. The more vivid the awfulness the more fans will consume it.
Chuck Palahniuk writes clipped, punchy sentences that almost turn the pages for the reader. His minimalism can be viewed as a cliche now, but try and pick up one of the following ten books and they will still read as freshly as they did upon their first publication.
These books are not without their criticisms. His scansion and choice of vocabulary I heard once described as only a step above juvenile. To that I say, haters gonna hate. Everyone’s emotional intelligence is at a different level.
Originally published June 15, 2004 Doubleday, 233 pages
10. STRANGER THAN FICTION
Starting this list is a book that proves reality is the title. A series of nonfiction essays, articles, and personal anecdotes. It comes across as a more readable version of David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. Chuck’s conversational and workman-like style is on full display as he riffs on a variety of borderline insane topics. A good primer for the transgressive societal-horror satires that follow down this list.
Originally published May 5, 2009, Doubleday, 256 pages
A clever epistolary narrative that’s unfortunately written in an English as second language style that I have seem some primary source reviewers dub Chingrish. A sleeper agent from an unnamed Asian government moves in with an American family as an exchange student. The narrative satirizes American culture in a series of missives sent back to the home office. The verbal style is deliberate with bold choices that will probably not age well for some of you more refined readers of the Ladies Home BDSM Journal. More sensitive readers should look for their cheap thrills elsewhere. But the rest of you can go right ahead and read this thing with your mouths slung open like attic doors. Like the rest of Chuck’s oeuvre it is not afraid to go where modern writers can only joke about on their couches inside the safety of their living rooms.
Originally published May 20, 2008 Doubleday, 208 pages
Three dudes prepare to do a scene with a retiring adult starlet attempting to break a world record. The gross out factor is strong with this one as we witness the male actor’s backstage behavior. This book is not only unfilmable but also unwatchable, which makes it great reading material. The narrative keeps turning the pages as each of our three leads has their own peculiar reasons for showing up on set. Like Pygmy this one is for adventurer’s only. Making it slightly above the former on this list due to its ease of reading as the English is more straightforward, more declarative, and is about twenty percent shorter.
Originally published May 3, 2005 Doubleday, 416 pages
The long and short of Haunted is that its a short story collection with a through-line framing device. An eccentric recruits writers to join a group where they can concentrate on their work…and terrible things happen. While each short is presented as the outpouring of the narrative’s fictional authors, they are pure Palahniuk. Mostly known for including the stomach churning story “Guts,” this book is an achievement on its own none-the-less.
Originally published September 1999 W.W. Norton & Company 297 pages
6. INVISIBLE MONSTERS
Personally, I hate this book, which found itself flying threw the air and crashing against my bedroom wall when I finished it the first time. (yes I have revisited it twice more since then but my 100% subjective opinion remains unchanged) I can hear you now, why did you include it on the list then J.D.? I would like to think I can set aside my personal hang-ups and appreciate a piece of literature on its more redeeming merits…not all the time, but just like with American politics there’s an exceptions to rules the peasants don’t even know about. Chuck’s first completed novel starts with a literal bang: A bride in ruined wedding dress aims a twelve gauge at her former best friend, and the narrator, (who relates this ugly tale despite the fact she’s missing her jaw) while the wedding venue burns down around them. This trio of supermodels are the most unlikeable collection of characters assembled this side of a Chandler Morrison public reading. Why do I hate this book? Read it for yourself and figure it out. Hey if you want I’ll read it again with you and we can gush about the grossness at the next book club meeting…you bring the desert…I’ll bring the excuses for being late. The original MS was rejected by the literary agent as being too transgressive which caused old Chucky boy to dig much deeper for his next piece called…
Originally published August 17, 1996 W.W. Norton & Company, 208 pages
5. FIGHT CLUB
The face that launched a thousand ships. Chuck’s first published book was actually a retort to a rejection of his first completed novel listed above. He set out to make something extremely over-the-top and ended up creating a cultural touchstone. While the movie version casts a big shadow over the source material, in today’s fast paced world of constant social media and 24 hour headlines about snowflakes, these characters seem much more immediate and scarily familiar. To say more would be to say too much and one must always follow the first rule of Fight Club…and the 2nd rule…and finally the third…Don’t talk about it just pick up a copy and read it.
Originally published February 17, 1999 by W.W. Norton & Company, 302 pages.
Formatting gimmickry aside, readers will fly through this book just about as fast as the Commercial airliner zooms towards its doom on page 1 (which due to said gimmickry is the last page) A Nebraska cult sends out its excess followers to become servants to wealthy members of American society. However, when the Cult suddenly commits mass suicide, the expats begin offing themselves one by one, until there’s only our narrator left and he’s going to tell you his personal story directly into the flight recorder of the plane he’s highjacked. Sex and death and the correlation to celebrity and corporate pharmacology are explored wonderfully in this as yet unfilmed gem of a book.
Originally published January 7, 2020 Grand Central Publishing, 256 pages.
3. CONSIDER THIS: Moments in my writing life after which everything was different.
Part Memoir/Part How To Manual. This is the best book about the writing craft in 2020. It immediately joined the ranks of Stephen King’s On Writing, Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me, and George V. Higgins On Writing, and is way better than SAVE THE CAT writes a Novel. There I said it even though I can feel the stakes have just been raised and the Bad Guys are Closing in. Chuck’s work reads like one of his novels full of insight and strange tangents that culminates in an excellent road map for anyone trying to combine subjects and verbs. Since Palahniuk’s life has been beset by public tragedies (the loss of his own father and the theft of most of his money by an unscrupulous accountant) this book signals a return to form as well as an opportunity for the writer to extend his reach into the 21st century.
Originally published September 17, 2002, by Doubleday, 272 pages.
The details are: a fantastic book that bridges the gap between early Chuck and later Chuck. His first foray into genre horror. A journalist reads a culling poem to his daughter and inadvertently murders her and his wife with it. Our Journalist meets a pink haired femme fatale real estate agent who has made a mint selling then reselling haunted houses who knows more than she lets on about the poems origin. Flanked by her hippy-dippy assistant and a lowlife yet enterprising boyfriend, this quad of misfits bands together as a makeshift modern family and race across the US to find every last copy of the poem and destroy it. It’s easy to read, yes…but it’s also heart rending as Chuck squeezes themes of family and loss out of every page for maximum effect. Tying it all together at the end is one of the funniest turns in all of modern literature. Eleventy-Billion Stars!
Originally published May 22, 2002 W.W. Norton & Company, 308 pages.
A book about a sex addicted con-artist that will make you cry like a diaper baby. Between these pages are all of Chuck’s signature story beats and ticks, but what separates CHOKE from FIGHT CLUB is that this is an exploration of the mother/child relationship and all of its complicated side drama. The themes in this book come across with a subtle grace as it sends the reader on a long walk through one person’s historical reenactment of failure, crime, and search for redemption. For those of you with bedroom teeth and normal haircuts watch the film adaptation starring Sam Rockwell. For those of us willing to get dirty this book is out there waiting on you to find it. The people who love us do so for their own reasons, and we must love them back the same. It teaches that forgiveness is not necessarily a two way street, but it is necessary to survive in a cruel world where nothing is exactly as it appears.
There you have it, the DEFINITIVE CHUCK PALAHNIUK TOP TEN LIST. It is basically all you will need to jump into the man’s work. And since you’ve made it this far why don’t you give us a quality cheap thrill and say hi before you say goodbye. We would love to hear from you.