Even the straightforward part of Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel is tough to pin down. Diary starts out as the bitter journal of Misty Tracy Wilmot, a failed artist and mother who wants to keep a record of her awful life just in case her husband wakes up from the coma he’s been in since a botched suicide attempt. The book is also a platform for brief meditations on, among other things, the anatomy of facial expressions, graphology, negative advertising, the Mona Lisa’s absent eyebrows, Jung, and Jain Buddhism. The asides emerge from the narrative like angry ants, but Palahniuk guides them to slowly reshape Misty’s diary into a brainy horror mystery: Pretty soon NIMBY terrorists are trying to harness her untapped creativity in a supernatural plan to rid their island (playfully called Waytansea) of tourist riffraff.
Palahniuk delightfully pushes Diary into the ludicrous, but his restless intelligence coheres plotwise, and as always he makes his ideas move. The often droll sentences are mantra-like, stripped-down, fragmented. Here’s a phrase that gets reworked throughout the book: “The weather today is increasing concern followed by full-blown dread.” He’ll spend a paragraph talking about something that has disappeared and then give a single-sentence recap: “Bermuda Triangulated.” To be technical, Palahniuk rarely uses contrast words like but. This can make for a lack of nuance, and Diary hits Misty’s sour note about a trailer-park childhood—the poverty marriage was supposed to save her from—too often. But Palahniuk mostly makes these blind spots into creative opportunities: Eventually, surprise revelations reconfigure almost all of Misty’s early entries.
Like Fight Club, Diary associates psychological shifts with a radical disfiguration of the body. Misty falls into the hands of apparently doting elders who turn out to be dogged sadists. Pain, they think, will force her to produce a powerful artwork, one that they’ll use in their wildly convoluted plan to scare people away from Waytansea. Is suffering the motor that drives creativity? Though Palahniuk toys with this cliché—even name-checking artist-sufferers like Goya, Delacroix, and Kahlo—he thankfully steers the question into irresolvability. Misty’s art might have mystical qualities, but none of Palahniuk’s descriptions make it sound very inspired. And by the book’s hocus-pocus logic, suffering might actually make Misty repeat the life of someone else—in other words, make her lose her individuality. Palahniuk rarely slows down for a tidy conclusion, but Diary‘s circular ending lingers, making it impossible to distinguish between self-determination and cruel fate. The pleasure here resides in his awesome ability to transform gleeful absurdities into a well-sculpted riddle.