Authors have the power to change people who have never even had the chance to meet them. It is a rare gift. One of those authors is Chuck Palahniuk, known primarily for his first novel, Fight Club.
Chuck Palahniuk was an honored guest of Cinequest Film Festival 23 as a Maverick Award recipient, earning the award for his unique outsider voice that continues to have an impact on mainstream culture. In addition to receiving a Maverick Award, Palahniuk attended the festival in support of a screening of the short film “Romance,” written and directed by Andy Mingo and based on Palahniuk’s short story of the same name.
There is an uncanny peace about him. During one of the Cinequest question and answer sessions, if he didn’t have an immediate answer for a question, instead of filling time until something funny came out or just plain moving on to the next question, Palahniuk bowed his head for a moment. Stilling himself—and the entire overfull theater—he would carefully consider his next response.
There is no pretension to the man. He seemed to just be palling around with the short film director Andy Mingo and Mingo’s wife Lydia, who is a member of Palahniuk’s longstanding writing group that began in 1990. Beyond that, he was immensely accessible, if not all that approachable.
People speak of his work as dancing, splitting, and obliterating the line between the sacred and the profane. His persona is almost entirely that of the sacred, a monk of the artistic order, making his way silently among the path of followers, hangers-on, and wannabes. His stillness and silence is unnerving to some, attracting to others.
Palahniuk is quite prolific, authoring nearly a novel a year, not including short stories and non-fiction. When asked about the motivation for his work, his initial response was about the benefit of his writer’s group. “The first step to make something real in the world is to tell everyone that you’re doing it, so that people ask you about it and hold you accountable throughout the entire process,” he said. “At our first workshop of each year, we go around the room and state very tangible, measurable accomplishments. ‘I’m going to have this ready; I’m going to have this to market.’ And they’re all written down and said out loud.”
On a deeper level, he spoke of his last novel, Damned, as helping him deal with some of his own emotions. “I started writing Damned when my mother was dying of cancer and my father was dead. And so, rather than write a sad book about a middle-aged man whose parents are dead, why not invert it and write a funny book about a dead child whose parents are still alive? It allows me to express all the grief, but in a kind of inverted way as humor. Because grief and humor are so, so close.”
Palahniuk delights in the proximity of grief and humor, sentimentality and shock. It seems that his favorite sort of laughter is the kind that comes from a place of discomfort and pain—a visceral spurt of uncontrollable cackling in response to the shocking, disgusting, and disconcerting.
Even still, his work is so much deeper than that. His writing resonates on a spiritual level that transcends the existential experience of reading his stories. “There is a part of me that thinks it can save the world by documenting things. When my friends, people I love, say something really bright, something insightful or funny, a perfect description, a dead-on something at a party, I can’t let it die. I have to—as a journalist—I have to create Noah’s Ark. I have to get all those animals on board Noah’s Ark. And I’ve got to do it really fast because those animals aren’t going to live forever.”
The theme of saving the world is hard to miss in Palahniuk’s work, with a steady stream of saviors, messiahs, and martyrs beginning with Tyler Durden. These characters are willing and not so willing, selfish and selfless, conscious and oblivious. There is an attraction to weakness and frailty, and a desire to set it free, in Palahniuk’s work and the characters he creates. The human sacrifice of Raymond K. Hessel in Fight Club comes to mind, as does Victor’s selfish gift to others, allowing them to save him, in Choke.
“I was raised Catholic. I tend to work from the same kind of symbols and tend to perceive the world through them. I was raised with them; I can’t escape them. In a way, the ultimate act is to redeem others through self-sacrifice, and in doing so, to redeem yourself. But [my stories] also tend to be situations that the narrators have created for themselves. They create the crisis, and then they create the solution. They have to destroy in order to evolve, to move up, in the way that Christ had to be destroyed.”
No one said saving the world is easy. And every artist, in his or her own way, is attempting to redeem themselves by redeeming others. To quote Tyler Durden, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
Written by Shadd Williams
Photography by Daniel Garcia