Bestselling British Contemporary Literature in 2020
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The Contemporary British Novel Since 2000
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Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra
A Contemporary Article About Chuck Palahniuk
This paper provides a basic overview of the popular author, Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Rant), and looks at how his works fit in to contemporary literature.
Palahniuk has a very unique narrative style. While traditionally, books have one narrator telling a story, generally in a third person voice, be they a character involved in the story or a secondary, omniscient narrator. Palahniuk's narrators, however, always speak in the first person. Instead of being people telling a story about an incident or a series of events, Palahniuk's characters speak directly to the reader, often giving the impression that the story is being spoken, rather than being written and read at a later time. In his three most recent novels, Snuff, Rant, and Haunted, Palahniuk uses all of the characters as narrators; in these books, there is not one singular point of view, as is normally found in a book, but up to a dozen conflicting stories from people who all view the events differently. This leaves it up to the reader, rather than the author, to distinguish the truth from the lies and determine the true path of the story. Palahniuk takes this one step further in Haunted, as each of the nineteen characters, who are all writers attending a writers' workshop gone horribly wrong, not only gets the chance to narrate a segment of the main story, but also tells at least one of the stories or poems that they have written. This creates a novel that not only has a primary plot, but also serves as a collection of Palahniuk's short stories.
In addition to a contemporary narrative structure, Palahniuk also uses a minimalist tone. Throughout his books, Palahniuk uses short, simple phrases, rather than long, descriptive paragraphs of text. Often these phrases are repeated by the narrating characters throughout the books, such as in Choke, the main character, Victor Mancini, frequently utters the phrase, "What would Jesus NOT do?" (Choke 186). He often uses phrases like this to portray something about a character that could alternatively be written about in a few paragraphs. For instance, rather than explaining in depth that Tender Branson, the protagonist of Survivor, works as a domestic servant, the character constantly mutters cleaning tips to himself, such as, "For tear stains in a pillow case, treat them the same way you would a perspiration stain. Dissolve five aspirin in water and daub the stain until it's gone. Even if there's a mascara stain, the problems solved" (Survivor, 263). In this way, Palahniuk lets the reader know the personality of the character, rather than just listing the fact that he is a highly trained house servant.
On top of the structure of the books, the modern medium of film also plays a large part in his role as a contemporary author. While novels have been written for hundreds of years, the concept of the feature film has been around for less than a century, making it a highly contemporary mode of storytelling. Palahniuk recognizes this fact and, in 1999, his first novel, Fight Club, was adapted into a film by the same name. His second film, an adaptation of Choke, is scheduled to be released in late 2020. By expanding his novels to be represented by multiple forms of media, Palahniuk extends the modernity of his writing, making him contemporary.
Palahniuk's characters are highly contemporary in nature in that all of them live in the margins of society. While the majority of the people in Palahniuk's novels are white, and therefore are not racial minorities, they are typically social outcasts. The characters are usually lower class, low-income, and often have a physical deformity, mental illness, or, at the very least, a personality defect that causes them to not completely fit into society. For instance, Victor Mancini of Choke suffers from a sex addiction, the unnamed narrator of Fight Club has schizophrenia. Additionally, practically every character in Haunted has a disability or is a member of a minority group, including a woman who lost her lips in an accident, a transgendered person, multiple murderers, and several people suffering from chronic illnesses. While these characters are the protagonists, they are often relatively antagonistic people that, through their narration, convince the reader to dislike them in a way, yet relate to them in a manner that is closer to the way people relate to each other, rather than a character in a story.
Most important to his label as a contemporary author is Palahniuk's themes, motifs, and satires, which tend to be very aware and critical of society, and conscious of the culture in which Palahniuk is writing. One topic and theme stands out in every single one of Palahniuk's novels as being his main focus for writing, and that is how people in today's modern society and culture relate to one another, to themselves, and to society itself. While each of his novels deals with different aspects of this subject matter, Palahniuk's entire repertoire, including his non-fiction works, can be considered to be of a larger work at examining the ways in which people exist and co-exist in their day to day lives in contemporary culture.
In his novel, Rant, Chuck Palahniuk examines the human need for closeness to others and physical contact, yet criticizes modern society for not providing an outlet for this basic human instinct. In the book, the characters take up a hobby known as 'party crashing', in which members purposefully crash their cars into member cars on the freeway, the impact itself and the resulting conversation between drivers and passengers serves as a last resort substitute for those who cannot obtain personal contact or meaningful conversation through any other, more conventional means. Additionally, as the novel takes place in the midst of a rabies epidemic, the members of the society will allow themselves the physical closeness required to transmit the disease to another, solely for the sake of human contact in what Palahniuk believes to be an austere and impersonal culture.
In Lullaby, a publisher accidentally prints, alongside other nursery rhymes, an African 'culling song', which has lyrics that kill whoever it is spoken to. As parents find this obscure book and sing the song, hoping to please their young children, they, in fact, end up killing them. Palahniuk uses this as a metaphor for all of the coddling and overprotecting parents attempt in today's society, which creates children that know nothing but pure comfort and have no sense of responsibility. While these parents mean well, they are actually smothering their children, and creating a generation that demands to be protected by others yet will take no personal responsibility.
Both Haunted and Snuff criticize the way in which people relate to each other in purely superficial ways. As many of the characters of Haunted are outcasts, they are judged solely based on their differences. The house full of writers refers to the characters not by their given names, but by descriptions of their flaws, such as 'Director Denial', 'The Baroness Frostbite', 'Miss Sneezy', and 'Reverend Godless'. Instead of getting to know the others as people, they all immediately judge each other based on their imperfections. Palahniuk continues this disapproval of shallow judgment in Snuff, which is the story of a porn star who plans to sleep with six hundred men in one day. All of the men who show up to help her reach her goal form opinions of both her and each other based completely on petty details, and nobody converses and tries to get to know one another before judging. Palahniuk blames not the people themselves, but the culture in which they belong, commenting that our modern society does not allow for people to be critiqued for who they are, rather they are judged simply for who they appear to be.
Palahniuk also criticizes some of the institutions that make up our culture. For example, in Fight Club, a large army of soldiers who prepare to fight an unknown battle for an unknown leader assemble under the name 'Project Mayhem'. They shave their heads, leave their families and lives behind, burn their skin, rid themselves of their previous identities, all in the name of 'Tyler Durden', who will supposedly lead them to victory. In this, Palahniuk questions the establishment of the military and the custom of war, asking whether or not any soldier ever knows exactly who they are fighting under or what they are battling for. Palahniuk also questions the concept of religion and the modern media, as Survivor revolves around Tender Branson, the last member of a religion known as the 'Creedish Death Cult', ultimately comes to his death while defending his religion to society and the media. The media consistently attacks and is fascinated with Branson and his disappearing religion, just as modern celebrities are followed by newspaper and gossip magazines, despite the fact that the general public does not have the right to invade the privacy of those they have deemed 'celebrities'.
Overall, Palahniuk's writing style, narrative structure, expansion into film, character choices, and themes and motifs that analyze and evaluate modern culture all define him as being a contemporary author.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Choke. Anchor Books, New York: 2002.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Diary. Anchor Books, New York: 2003.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. Henry Holt and Co., New York: 1997.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Haunted. Anchor Books, 2005.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Invisible Monsters. W.W. Norton and Co., New York: 1999