Chuck Palahniuk's debut novel, 1996's Fight Club, was a low-key buzz book until David Fincher's 1999 film adaptation, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, made Palahniuk a sudden underground literary star. The novel's themes of nihilistic machismo, iconoclastic independence, and alienation from commercial society hit home for many, and Palahniuk responded with a series of fantastical books exploring similar ideas in increasingly outré ways. Survivor, Invisible Monsters (which was written before Fight Club, but substantially rewritten for publication), and last year's Choke each feature disaffected protagonists trying to get by outside the borders of the mainstream world, but they approach the subject with dark humor, fast pacing, and a welter of bizarre real-life trivia. Palahniuk's new Lullaby delves further into fantasy than his previous books, with the story of an African "culling song" that kills its listeners, a real-estate agent who specializes in haunted houses, and a group of dysfunctional outsiders on a quest to wipe out all records of the fatal lullaby. While on a book tour in support of Lullaby, Palahniuk spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about identity, philosophy, transgression, and his adventures with the Portland, Oregon, branch of the culture-jamming Cacophony Society.
The Onion: Last December, you wrote an interesting article for Gear magazine, about transgressive novels and Kierkegaard's theory that seeing a possibility ensures that it'll be fulfilled. But the essay didn't quite make it clear whether you believe the theory yourself.
Chuck Palahniuk: I think in a way, you're doomed, once you can envision something. You're sort of doomed to make it happen. I've found that the moment I can envision leaving a relationship, that's usually the moment that the relationship starts to fall apart.
O: What sort of responsibilities does that put on you, as an author who specializes in describing colorful and sometimes antisocial acts?
CP: Well, I don't so much come up with them as I document what people are doing around me. In a way, I just feel like I'm the kid saying, "The emperor's not wearing any clothes." There's not a whole lot of original thought in my stuff. There isn't. I'm really good at organizing. I'm a really good file-keeper. And that's all that I do.
O: Your new book, Lullaby, does seem more focused on events that would be impossible for readers to reproduce. Magical spells, selling haunted houses…
CP: Actually, I've got a friend, Janet, who became the specialist in Portland for selling houses that people had really bad feelings about. Janet claimed she could see everything that had ever been reflected in a mirror, so she was the expert in that sort of woo-woo stuff. That's what Helen in Lullaby is based on. But actually, Lullaby is my rant about how we tend to exploit and trivialize the sacred things of previous cultures. I was at Bed, Bath & Beyond, of all places, looking for a wedding gift with a friend. She was a history major, and she kept pointing out how one culture's deity, one culture's sacred word or symbol, becomes the next culture's wallpaper pattern. And I thought, "What if there was something from a previous culture that was innately powerful, and then people picked it up to make a buck from it and ended up disseminating some really dangerous piece of information?" Like nuclear waste. What's to say that, in God knows how many years, some culture isn't going to pick up our nuclear waste and start making jewelry out of it? There's this big government project in Nevada, for artists to create a sculpture that will be frightening enough to keep people away from the nuclear-waste dump for the next 10,000 years. Supposedly, there's never been a form of semantics, a language, that has existed that long. They're trying to find something that will function as language beyond our civilization, that will keep people away from there forever and ever. I just think that's a glorious idea.
O: Lullaby has a more novelistic quality than your previous books—it's much less staccato.
CP: [Laughs.] "Like you're growing old, finally. Like you've finally turned 40 and are admitting it."
O: Do you think of it that way?
CP: Really, it's the first book I've written since I've been writing full-time, the first one I didn't have to write in tiny stolen stretches while the boss was somewhere else. I think that's the biggest difference.
O: Like all your books, it has a character who's constructed a new identity for himself. Why are manufactured identities and identity crises such a strong touchstone for you?
CP: Maybe in a way because I don't perceive that we have a lot of rituals for establishing adulthood in our society. It seems for me that it's been about the impulse to rush out and buy a lot of stuff so I feel like a grownup, or commit to a relationship at age 17 so I feel like a grownup. It's about trying to, in a way, arbitrarily complete myself with a rite of passage, because there is no rite of passage that says, "Okay, now you're an adult." That idea of identity is always an issue for me. Personal identity seems like it's just such an American archetype, from Holly Golightly re-inventing herself in Breakfast At Tiffany's to Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. It seems like the sort of archetypal American issue. If you're given the freedom to be anything, or be anyone, what do you do with it?
O: All of your protagonists are angry and disaffected with some aspect of society. Do you ever see yourself writing a book about someone who isn't inherently miserable?
CP: Wow. Someone that's happy? Shouldn't that be enough? Wouldn't that be sort of a comfort book? I'm not really into comfort books. There are too many of those as it is. Just sort of narcotic books, like my grandmother used to read. They have value like Paxil has value, but there's plenty of them in the world already. There's a shortage of confronting, stimulating, exciting books.
O: You seem to get a lot of people approaching you at your readings to tell you about things they've done that are similar to events in your books.
CP: People tell me the most amazing stories and facts. In a way, by saying these things in my books, I allow people to tell the truth about what they've done. You create this place where people can say, "Okay, I've done something similar."
O: What's the strangest confession you've heard?
CP: [Laughs.] This is one of my favorites. I was in London last summer, and a guy came up at one of the readings, beforehand, and he said, "I loved what you wrote [in Fight Club] about doing stuff to celebrities' food, because I work at a five-star restaurant, and we do stuff to celebrities' food all the time." That's no surprise to me, because all my friends have stories. And I go, "Who? Tell me somebody," and he says, "I can't, it's a five-star restaurant." I refused to sign his book until he would tell me one person. And he gets really quiet, and then he says, "Margaret Thatcher has eaten my sperm." I was just stunned. It must have been the look on my face, but he got this little smile, and he goes, "At least five times." That is a story that—my God, you can make a whole room full of people put down their forks when you tell that story.
O: Have you ever had anyone tell you about something you disapproved of, or that you felt a need to scold them for?
CP: People have asked me to write things like "I love Satan" in their Bible, and there's things like that I can't condone, for whatever reason. Nobody's told me anything to date that I've been completely reviled by. The Cacophony Society crucified a pink seven-foot rabbit outside St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland on Easter morning, and I refused to take part in that, because it seemed like it was attacking these people's religion. So I have a threshold, too.
O: What kinds of things have you done with the Cacophony Society?
CP: Santa Rampage, pretty much every year. We did something called the Art Mall, where during the first-Thursday opening of all the new art shows in all the sort of Soho-type galleries in Portland, we rented a big storefront for a night, and put together a huge art gallery full of the nastiest, tackiest art we could find, and suckered all these people into our gallery, alongside all the others. We ended up having this incredible drunken party. That was a blast.
O: And what's the Santa Rampage?
CP: There's usually one host city that different chapters from around the world go to for one weekend, usually about two weeks before Christmas. Everybody arrives dressed as Santa Claus, using the name "Santa Claus," and the host city usually has two to three days of continuous events. People drink and party and sing, and disrupt big benefit parties, and are basically public nuisances. But the fact that there's 400 of them all in red makes them this stunning sort of moving artwork. They call it "The Red Tide." It's really beautiful. When I did it in '96, at one point it was all these Santas against this SWAT team of cops, because the Santas wanted to get into a shopping center that was private property. It was so beautiful to see all these blue policemen juxtaposed with all these red Santas, and all these crying kids that were like, "Why are you beating up on Santa?" This year, they're talking about Tijuana as the host city, but no one wants to get busted in Tijuana.
O: Is it true that you never write when you're at home?
CP: Boy. I keyboard while I'm home, but I never write. You don't have ideas when you're sitting in that sort of sterile little place, and you're not around people. The most boring scenes are the scenes where a character is alone. I just need that dynamic of other people around me to get my work done.
O: You don't find other people distracting?
CP: If I have a really good idea, no. But amplified television voices and useless blaring music in public places, I find that really distracting.
O: How much research goes into your books?
CP: For each character, I try to identify a body of knowledge. What is it that that character knows so well that it colors how they see the rest of the world? So I'll do a bunch of research around something like antique furniture, some very specific thing that I know nothing about, but want that character to know really well. Other than that, major plot events, plot twists, and things like that will come from things people tell me. Spontaneous knowledge, spontaneous information. And then there's more calculated, developed information, like the household hints, that takes a while to put together.
O: Do you have a policy about the factoids that come up in your books? Are they invariably true, or will you fudge things to make a literary point?
CP: My journalist's bogey is that if I'm going to use it as a non-fictional device, it has to be true, as far as I can research it. All the trivia is true. In a way, I want to make the incredible plausible by burying it in non-fiction stuff. Make the little tiny details all true, so people will believe the really big, outlandish stuff.
O: In talking about your works in the past, you've quoted Michel Foucault, Marshall McLuhan, Camus, Kierkegaard… Do you read a lot of philosophy and cultural critique?
CP: Yeah, I do, because it's always giving me glimpses into understanding parts of the world I took for granted before. I love that. You just think things are a certain way, and then you find out the nature of why they're that way. I'm in love with that moment of insight.
O: Do you consciously write to meet philosophical theories you've read?
CP: Totally consciously. I'll read something about Kierkegaard discussing his leap beyond nihilism, his leap of faith, and I'll be thinking, "How can I write a book that illustrates this really incredible idea?" In a way, that becomes sort of the germ of the entire plot.
O: Your books are often called nihilistic themselves. Do you think that label applies?
CP: Yeah, but I think they go beyond nihilism, to the sort of ultimate freedom that you find in real nihilism, which is complete freedom, complete permission.
O: A lot of Fight Club's fans seem to appreciate the movie on a lower level than Kierkegaard might. How do you deal with fans who just see it as a call to anarchy or violence?
CP: Wow. Bummer. I can't control that, you know? All I can control is how much fun it is for me to do it. And beyond that, I can't control whether people are going to go to it, whether they're going to like it, how they're going to interpret it. I can't control it, so I don't even worry about it.
O: Is there a wrong way to read your work?
CP: No. I accept the whole Roland Barthes idea of the death of the author. People are going to bring their own body of knowledge, their own experience, to whatever. It is possibly going to be, for them, something in contradiction to what it was for you. I can't control that, so I won't even worry about it.