Chuck Palahniuk is a picture of cleanliness, a man you'd take home to Mom. He is tall, ostentatiously muscular, and dressed in a pressed white button-down shirt and gray wool trousers. From his first novel, Fight Club (a cult thriller about men's deep desire for violence), and his new novel, Invisible Monsters (a road story about a barbiturate-popping MTF transsexual and a model whose face has been shot off), I expected someone sleazier.
"I'm a constant disappointment to people," laughs Palahniuk, when I tell him I had figured on some leather. Then, he adds, "So exciting is my life that I don't have to dress up in any sort of exciting way."
What's so exciting? Recently, he traded an introduction to Brad Pitt for the opportunity to dissect human bodies with a friend in medical school. (Pitt stars in the film version of Fight Club, opening October 15, and directed by David Fincher, who is interviewed elsewhere in this issue.) "We worked all night and dissected and dismembered these three cadavers. It was so incredibly amazing and wonderful. You have to cut the heads all the way lengthwise and open them up," he explains. "On one level it's frightening, but on another level it's so incredible just to see how beautifully it's all put together."
Several months ago, he broke into the apartment of a young man he knew from volunteering at a hospice. The guy was dying of AIDS, and asked Palahniuk to remove all the sex paraphernalia from his home so his parents wouldn't see it; when he lost consciousness for the last time, he still hadn't given Palahniuk his keys. "I was terrified I was going to be arrested," says the author of his midnight thievery. "I finally got his leather stuff, sex stuff. Then I was terrified I would be arrested with a Hefty bag full of greasy dildos. I took it out back and put it in the Dumpster, then went back and cleaned up the apartment."
Because his parents were frequently separated before eventually divorcing, Palahniuk grew up with his grandparents on a cattle ranch in eastern Washington. His father "worked for the railroad" and his mother for a nuclear power plant, but Palahniuk and his three siblings lived farmers' lives. "My grandfather had so many scams," he says fondly. "The scene in Invisible Monsters about feeding stale Hostess treats to the pigs [to fill their intestines with extra poundage before sale] my sister and I always had to do that, open all those packages and throw them in."
Sad yet farcical, these adventures have much the same pathos and disturbed hilarity as Monsters, which is a departure for a writer known for the cruel and philosophical Fight Club and a dark second novel, Survivor. Although it doesn't skimp on gore, Monsters centers on the queeny fashionista antics of the transsexual Brandy Alexander. Stuck at the U.S.-Canadian border with loads of illegal pharmaceuticals and no passport, pumped up on estrogen patches and Vicodins, Brandy changes her pearls for a necklace with a little gold cross and announces, "Don't anybody panic . . . I can get us back into the States, but I'm going to need a condom and a breath mint."
"I love the language of fashion magazines," says Palahniuk, who was inspired to write Monsters when he began reading Vogue, Elle, and Glamour in his local laundromat. "Eighteen adjectives and you find the word sweater at the end. 'Ethereal. Sacred.' I thought, Wouldn't it be fun to write a novel in this fashion magazine language, so packed with hyperbole?"
Palahniuk's own hyperboles are more hellish than sacred, though. "I'm rotting," says the narrator, of her modeling days, "with my blood pumped out in this slutty Suzie Wong Tokyo Rose concubine drag dress where it didn't fit so they had to pin all the extra together behind my back. I look like shit, dead. I look like dead shit."
Brandy and the narrator, whose gorgeous face is now a jawless mass of scar tissue thanks to a mysterious accident, kidnap a superbuff expolice officer who soon becomes Brandy's lover. Together, they tour expensive real estate while raiding the medicine cabinets for hormones and psychoactive substances. Not surprisingly, the premise is autobiographical: In his twenties, when he worked as a diesel mechanic after graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, Palahniuk and his friends used to tour wealthy Portland homes, popping whatever pills they could find "until we couldn't make a fist," he says. "One of the rules. We'll go to open houses until one of us falls down. We never, ever got caught."
So, although its nonlinear structure and graphic violence (someone's breasts are shot off, two people's faces are mutilated, that sort of thing) will keep Fight Club fans on familiar ground, "Monsters is a Valley of the Dolls book, a summer beach book. A book that smells like suntan lotion when you buy it used. Don't take it very seriously."
Pressed, though, Palahniuk grants that the novel's underlying philosophy was inspired by Michel Foucault: "We really have no freedom about creating our identities, because we are trained to want what we want. What is it going to take to break out and establish some modicum of freedom, despite all the cultural training that's been our entire existence? It's about doing the things that are completely forbidden, that we are trained not to want to do. In Fight Club, it was that we are taught to avoid violence. In Invisible Monsters, it was that Brandy Alexander doesn't really want a sex change. And in a way, having it was the most important thing she could think to do, because it would destroy an identity that was being imposed upon her by society."
And therein lies the common denominator between the sober, quiet man in front of me, this stylish, bitchy beach read, and the manly, gory psychosis that Fincher is bringing to the screen: an existentialist philosophy, in which morality is unnecessary and a person's individuality is only discovered when he or she ruptures social norms.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.