Perhaps it’s the curse of the upstart artist: you start out all freaky and original, and end up covering the same terrain as the Eagles. Such is the case with gifted Portland, Oregon, writer Chuck Palahniuk. The message of his sophomore novel, Survivor, is that life in the fast lane makes you lose your mind.
Survivor begins at the end. All alone in a plane about to crash in the Australian outback, hotshot televangelist Tender Branson recites his life story into the plane’s flight-data recorder. He grew up as a member of the Creedish religion— a small, self-contained Christian sect nestled in Nebraska, far from the reach of broadcast media, electricity, wanton lust, consumerism, and other forms of social menace. He dutifully cleaned houses in exchange for a modest monthly donation to the church elders by his employer. Tender’s story unfolds via deliciously obsessive details, curious plot twists, and just enough tension to keep the reader picking up the book during the workday, holding it just out of sight under the desktop. Who knew this humble housekeeper would end up as the hottest thing in New Age religion?
Many years prior to the kamikaze mission that opens the book, Tender received the message that, back at the church colony, the Deliverance had come and the members had committed mass suicide. The isolation and fatalism (Tender is expected to kill himself per church doctrine) that stem from being part of a self-immolating sect color Tender’s bland little life. Tender says,
After seventeen years of working in private houses every day, the things I know the most about are slapped faces, creamed corn, black eyes, wrenched shoulders, beaten eggs, kicked shins, scratched corneas, chopped onions, bites of all sorts, nicotine stains, sexual lubricants, knocked-out teeth, split lips, whipped cream, twisted arms, vaginal tears, deviled ham, cigarette burns, crushed pineapple, hernias, terminated pregnancies, pet stains, shredded coconut, gouged eyes, sprains, and stretch marks. . . .
Whether you clean a stain, a fish, a house, you want to think you’re making the world a better place, but really you’re just letting things get worse.
Problem is, once it is revealed that Tender is the last surviving Creedish, the book becomes predictable. The narrative swerves from the deft, carefully imagined satire of a tiny, workaday life and plunges straight into a ‘Toontown-like hyperbolic broadcast of living large before the masses. As the last survivor, Tender is swarmed upon by agents, talk-show hosts, journalists, and would-be managers. He’s borne up on wings of hype and flies off to New York to become a Real Live Messiah, Inc. Soon he’s collagen injected, personally trained, pumped up on steroids, and grinning at his legions of followers with newly capped teeth. He’s your own market-tested and approved Personal Jesus. It’s a madcap sellout— a subject ripe for farce, but alas, one that’s already been covered by everything from Dead Kennedys songs to episodes of The Simpsons.
Perhaps Palahniuk consciously planned the shift to underscore the contrast between Tender’s prefame life (mundane, deliberate, introspective misanthropy) and his turn in the spotlight (flashy! hectic! meta-everything misanthropy!). Every sentence in the second half of the book shores up the sentiment that fame is, like, sooo debasing, and that these days redemption beams in via cathode rays; faith is measured in units sold. Check out this corker as Tender the Televangelist reaches a celeb-epiphany while churning away on the StairMaster: “The key to salvation is how much attention you get. How high a profile you get. Your audience share. Your exposure. Your name recognition. Your press following. The buzz.”
Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama and Jay McInerney’s Model Behavior, Palahniuk’s Survivor seems unable to slay that modern demon, pop culture celebrity.
Make no mistake, for all the hokey attempts at bashing fame and organized religion, Palahniuk is an original talent. It’s just that, in contrast to his first novel, Fight Club, which is a hugely entertaining book full of testosterone fury and drudge subterfuge, Survivor seems lazy. Funny, but lazy. One wonders why someone with such a unique mind would bother with such overstudied ideas.
While most savvy adult readers would find the ultimate message of the book trite, many young-adult readers— hungry kids trapped in suburban and rural America, eager for a taste of contrariness and “fuck-shit-up” guidance by example— might make a cult hero of Palahniuk. (The movie of Fight Club, starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, is scheduled for release this summer.) Imagine them, septum piercings gleaming in the sun, bearing him up on their shoulders, chanting, “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck!” Let’s just hope admiration won’t lead him into the same cynical nosedive as Tender.