The Chuck-ness of it all

“To Mick and Chick and Chimp,” reads the dedication to Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book. Even though you’ve just cracked the spine, the monosyllables rhyme and alliterate in a way that already conjures in your imagination the question of who, exactly, these Micks and Chicks and Chimps are and what manner of misadventure they must have hatched with Portland’s baddest-ass literary export. Did this foursome maybe bungee-jump together off the Las Vegas Stratosphere tower while tripping, dressed as Easter Bunnies and armed with paintball guns, shooting and splattering each other in mid-air and seriously cracking up at the outrageous Chuck-ness of it all? It’s a truly Chuckalicious dedication page. What a shame that the book goes downhill from there.

In Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories, Palahniuk seems set on proving that he’s contemporary letters’ answer to Howard Stern. In Palahniuk’s collection of nonfiction essays, many of them reprints of magazine pieces, the author sends himself on extreme-sport, reality-TV-style stunts that share with Stern’s radio show a penchant for populist-geared scatology and gross-out imagery. Anal dildos, waiters who blow various wads onto customers’ meals, men afflicted with “cauliflower ear,” cadaver dogs who sniff death scents—you get the picture.

If spending 233 pages immersed in a cesspool is your idea of smart, snappy summer reading, Stranger Than Fiction is for you. Likewise, if you’re one of those Chuckophiles who’s convinced that every zany thing the author does is way totally cool. But if these sundry charms fail to amuse you, like me, you’ll quickly conclude that Chuck is no Hunter S. Thompson and that the act of his doing something allegedly wild ‘n’ crazy does not, by virtue of sheer Chuckitude, necessarily make for fascinating reading.

Nor will you happily endure his obsession with his ever-receding claim to fame and favorite topic, the 1996 novel Fight Club. In one chapter, he mentions the book three times within four paragraphs in completely unrelated contexts. Palahniuk also loves to talk about Brad Pitt, the star of said movie: Brad’s lips, Brad’s teeth and the things Brad said to him on the film set. In other chapters, the star-struck author interviews actress Juliette Lewis, cultural commentator Andrew Sullivan and singer Marilyn Manson, letting his subjects hold vapidly forth and making no effort to edit their stultifying digressions. It’s the interviewer as transcriber.

This is not to say there aren’t passages in which Palahniuk drops the fawning and the posturing and actually expresses keen thoughts and real pain. In the book’s introduction, he speaks with some wisdom and candor to the bipolarities of loneliness and sociability in the writer’s life. In “The People Can,” he offers an insightful look at life aboard a nuclear submarine. Occasionally, he sprinkles illuminating references to Carl Jung, Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger into otherwise sophomoric prose, and he concludes the book with an affecting account of his father’s murder. But even these victories are held hostage to Palahniuk’s minimalist mannerisms, which had a novel ring eight years ago but have since threaded bare.

It’s telling, finally, when Palahniuk interviews Manson, that it’s the eccentric singer who confesses, "The only fear I have left is the fear of not being able to create, of not having inspiration." With nothing to prove, the androgynous rocker drops his guard and yearns for a muse, while the pseudo-macho man of letters, his notebook full of fragments, longs for simple inspiration.