In his previous non-fiction collection, Fugitives And Refugees, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk described his hometown of Portland in alternately chummy and impersonal tones, interspersing hilarious stories about his own experiences with dry, guidebook-standard briefs on quirky tourist traps. The whole project strongly implied that Palahniuk had an inexhaustible font of fascinating experiences to share, but that a themed travel guide was the wrong forum; they needed a collection of their own.
Sadly, Palahniuk's new anthology Stranger Than Fiction still isn't that collection. The book brings together a double handful of the author's magazine essays and articles about places he's visited, people he's met, and things he's done. But as with Fugitives And Refugees, the genre's standards often get in the way, leaving individual installments feeling detached and aloof, or simply like rote reportage.
In Stranger Than Fiction's first section, "People Together," Palahniuk visits people who share a unique job or hobbyamateur wrestlers, men who build castles, demolition-derbyists, a submarine crew, steroid-shooting weightlifters, and so forth. The second section, "Portraits," offers unconventional studies of individuals like Marilyn Manson, Juliette Lewis, Stepford Wives author Ira Levin, and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan. For the final section, "Personal," Palahniuk dedicates a mere 40 pages or so to his own experiences and perspectives. Not that his point of view doesn't leak into his other pieces: His journalistic style is generally more "I am here" than "You are there," and biography and analysis frequently pad out the mechanical sports-reportage of who won what round at the farm-combine demolition derby, or which sex acts took place onstage at the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival.
But at the same time, Palahniuk's journalism lacks either the full objectivity of newspaper reportage or the full involvement of autobiography. When he's not writing directly about himself, his remove makes all the quirks blend together. Whether his subjects are buying walking sticks made of dried bull penises, selling their life stories to movie producers, or laying out Tarot cards covered with their own face, they're all remarkably similar oddities, trying simultaneously to stand out and fit in.
Perhaps that's because Palahniuk sees them as variations on the same individual; in his introduction, he theorizes that all his work is about lonely people trying to connect. His desire to shoehorn each of his subjects into the same pattern may explain why their stories blur together, but his vivid, soulful dissection of that pattern provides the most compelling element of his latest book. Like so much of Palahniuk's work, Stranger Than Fiction is eccentric, idiosyncratic, and often entertaining. But its introduction sets a standard of passion and conviction that the rest of the book sorely lacks.