Monsters' Ball

'Fight Club' author goes inside a gothic writers' workshop

Chuck Palahniuk's seventh novel has already inspired Canterbury Tales and Decameron mentions, but its connective tissue better resembles Short Cuts' earthquake sequence, the last cinematic straw in Robert Altman's overstated take on Raymond Carver. Palahniuk's always been hammy, but in the past, speedster plots and glossy prose salvaged the sitcom shallowness. Here, Haunted's wonky framing device tries to hold together 23 tales (and 21 accompanying poems) that would've best been served without garnish.

The padding involves a pack of writer wannabes who respond to a flyer for a three-month retreat promising to separate them from the everyday so they can tap their true potential and pen a masterpiece. After quitting jobs and ending myriad relationships ("I am not fat" written in pink lipstick on a mirror, dial "1-800-FUCK-OFF" for a parole officer), the crew's locked in an abandoned, Huysmans-style theater with "old man" Mr. Whittier and Mrs. Clark, whose retelling of a heartbreaking dalliance with amateur porn explains why she got her "frosty peach" blowjob lips and gravity-defying breasts, "chosen by a much braver woman . . . with a much stronger back."

A standard Palahniukian mouthpiece ("people fall in love with their pain, they can't leave it behind"), workshop leader Whittier brings up the Shelleys' Frankenstein-birthing jaunt to Lord Byron's Lake Geneva cabin as his project's archetype, but it turns out his real plan is "to create just one ghost—fast." See, he's dying and—quite illogi cally—wants the posse to hate and perhaps haunt him after they die, thereby proving an afterlife. (Where's Nietzsche when you need him?)

As self-involved internment drags on, participants one-up each other's suffering, so that when they're discovered they can have the best chance of selling their story (while sporting a larger mythology). Oh, reality television! Self-mutilation, pet killing, cannibalism, murder, afterbirth stew, sabotaged food, clogged toilets, and even a broken washing machine ensue.

Because it's Palahniuk, each character proves monstrous (or sleazy, or annoying) via interpersonal activities (see above) and self-incriminating fireside anecdotes—e.g., crotchety shopkeeper is killed for faux Marilyn Monroe fetus, chronic masturbator has intestines sucked out by pool filter, little-kid sex dolls with razor blades in their orifices scar a police force, cross-dressers charge people money to punch 'em stupid, mass suicide ("emigration") as lifestyle fad, a chef kills critics who give him bad reviews. Many of these are humorous, but rarely more than that. Railing against consumerism, the American dream of leisure, our victim culture, Palahniuk's whoopee-cushion transgression sputters. The author's one coup is the most noteworthy presentation of a progerian since Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh: a 13-year-old skate rat who beds then blackmails sympathetic soccer moms.

 
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