Well, I got some bad news this past weekend…
After some navigational woes caused me to miss the reading in San Francisco this past Friday night, I was forced to head out to Berkeley to catch Chuck Palahniuk on Saturday. He is one of my favorite authors, and has been since I read the first line of Fight Club. I went on to read his entire oeuvre, and every book has been, if not a masterpiece, then a solid chunk of writing with a distinctive voice and flair for language. He is on the road to promote his newest effort Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey.
I’ve never seen him in person before, and I didn’t know quite what to expect. It turned into a very cool evening. The first thing he did was distribute fake cigarettes to the audience, little plastic cylinders with fake little cherries. They were loaded with chalk powder, so that you could simulate a cloud of smoke if you blew into them. He apparently had them shipped here, along with several boxes of goodies. The cigarettes featured prominently in the first story he read, an unpublished short story he keeps just for readings like this one. It made me feel exclusive and cool to think that so few people would ever get to hear “Death Nest.” He also read several letters that he received, and another unpublished story “Cold Calling.” They were both great stories, written in the inimitable Palahniuk style.
In between, he solicited questions from the crowd. I had two things I wanted to know about him, and luckily they were both asked. The first had to do with the little facts and instructions that pop up in his writing, things like the automotive insurance stats in Fight Club, the medical mnemonics in Choke, and the etiquette/housecleaning stuff from Survivor. I always wondered if he has a research assistant or something, or if he finds out all those bizarre bits of knowledge for himself (its the latter). I also wondered about his recent shift to multiple points of view. Most of his books are written in the first person, and the one criticism I have is that they can (kinda sorta) sound alike. After a while all his narrators end up sounding a bit like Chuck Palahniuk. That’s not necessarily a bad, thing but I was glad to see him branching out into other forms of narrative. he did it in Haunted,he did say that was a conscious choice, and with Rant, he wanted to explore a Rashomon-style retelling of the same event from multiple points of view. So I got my questions answered even if I wasn’t the one who asked them. Everyone who asked a question got a bouquet of flowers tossed to them by the man himself.
He alternated the Q and A with trivia questions, grilling us with bits of esoterica from his novels. Those who answered his questions correctly were rewarded with an inflatable moose head, signed by the author. And guess what:
I named him Tyler.
That’s right, dear reader. I won a prize. It was actually the only one he asked that I knew, so I lucked out. What bit of trivia enabled to bring home this majestic moose? The question had to do with Choke. “Why couldn’t Victor read his mother’s diary?” Because it was in Italian, of course. Having proven my mettle, I settled down for the rest of the reading. It was a great experience, and he told some killer stories. He knows some fucked up people, and cited them as his source of fucked-up stories. The coolest was the story of the initiation of French veterinarians, which in a typical display of Gallic strangeness, involved being sewn inside a dead horse and crawling your way out.
I was really struck by the way he said that every story he tells is a way of dealing with loss, and that every single novel could be traced back to the death of someone he loved. It was heavy, and it made me realize how little emotional weight my own writing has. I’m way better at reviewing comic book movies than contextualizing pain and achieving catharsis. Anyway..
After he ended the reading by tossing plastic severed feet and giant hamburgers into the crowd, I got my copy of Rant signed. I haven’t read it yet but it apparently has to do with a man who spreads rabies and runs an underground demolition derby. (Hence the stamp on my autograph page, and the reference to giving me head refers to Tyler the Moose, you pervs.) I also had a picture taken, but in a another bit of authorial quirk, he would only take pictures like this:
That’s not normally what I wear when I go out, even in San Francisco but who am I to say no? It was fun, and you can see if Chuck is coming to your town here. If so, I suggest you shell out the eight bucks. You won’t be disappointed and you might get a moose head.