Fainting crowds, fights, sedatives; Chuck Palahniuk does book tours differently. Tom Ellen hits the road with the undisputed dark prince of fiction
The man next to me looks like he’s trying to wrestle the laughter back into his mouth. He’s bent double on the edge of his chair, his whole body trembling, eyes screwed shut and both hands clamped over his lips, struggling to contain the noises therein. Try as he might, though, the laughter is leaking. It’s escaping between his fingers in a soft, hissing groan.
If the man would unscrew his eyes for just a second, he’d see that he has no reason to feel so ashamed. Half the audience here at Manchester’s Anthony Burgess Foundation is bent double in a similar position, their accumulative hissing groans in danger of drowning out Chuck Palahniuk, who is standing on stage reading a story called Romance.
It’s a story that involves a mentally disabled woman assaulting people with a used tampon, and young girls embracing cancer for its weight-loss benefits. It’s not difficult to see why the crowd feel they shouldn’t be laughing. The problem is that the story is very, very funny. If you’ve ever read anything by Palahniuk – from the mighty Fight Club to the likes of 2001’s Choke, which tracks a sex addict who fakes suffocation in restaurants – you’ll recognise that nagging sense that your moral compass has just been shattered beyond repair and, weirdly, you quite enjoyed it.
During the Q&A that follows, Palahniuk continues to find ways to horrify his audience. He swats away one rather dry query about his pre-writing jobs by recounting the (true) story of a trainee veterinarian who was drugged, stripped naked and sewn inside a horse’s corpse. The man next to me prises his hands from his mouth just long enough to whisper, “Oh my God.” This might all sound a tad intense, but actually, for a Chuck Palahniuk event, it’s fairly tame. “Someone had a fit at a reading recently,” the 51-year-old author tells me afterwards. “I hope he was all right. The ambulance took him away. I usually get people’s addresses [when they faint] so I can write to them.”
Palahniuk is extremely proud of his ability to rob his crowds of consciousness. In Brighton in 2003, he clocked up 18 faintings in one sitting.
“I’ll never top that,” he says, shaking his head sadly. “The faintings are a treat for me. From my position onstage, I can always tell who is wavering, and when they collapse I see their neighbour initially react in disgust, horrified at being touched by a stranger. But then, they realise this person needs help, and the whole audience goes from hating each other to uniting. When the person is revived, the audience is so relieved it’s like they’ve watched a resurrection.”
Outside the venue, the same fans that were convulsing into their hands are now clamouring for autographs. Unfortunately, there’s no time as Palahniuk has another reading to get to, and we are piled straight into a car bound for Sheffield. Those fans may not be leaving with signed books, but they’ve certainly had a memorable night out. That’s something Palahniuk prides himself on: giving people an “ephemeral moment that isn’t an archived Facebook photo”. Previous tours have seen him hurl plastic dog turds at the audience, and make them write questions on beach balls.
“Many of my fans have never been to an author reading before,” he says. “So I want their first one to be dazzling, not boring.” But you’re setting them up for a fall, I tell him. They’ll be disappointed by every other reading they attend. He laughs. “Maybe, but isn’t that what sex is like? After your first time you think, ‘I can’t wait to do that again!’ But nothing lives up to that first time. Not for the rest of your life.”
I’ve joined Palahniuk (it’s pronounced ‘Paul-ah-nick’) midway through the UK tour to promote his latest novel, Doomed. The book is a sequel to 2011’s Damned, and finds 13-year-old deceased protagonist Madison Spencer continuing her Dante-esque journey from Hell into Purgatory.
“I was writing Damned when my mother was dying, so it was all about grief,” he says. “But now both my parents have left this world, I feel such lightness! When they were in the world, I was always ashamed of embarrassing them.”
I point out that he still produced some fairly crazy books while they were alive. “Yes,” he nods, “but now I can get crazier.” He’s currently working on a new novel, which he describes as “a crime against humanity… Barbara Cartland meets the Marquis de Sade”.
We arrive in Sheffield to a fresh horde of fans clamouring for an autograph. Palahniuk smiles politely as he shakes the hands being thrust at him. He has a willowy nervous energy (and side-swept Fifties haircut) that brings to mind Back To The Future’s George McFly.
The crowd is split pretty evenly between male and female. The girls look like Ellen Page in Juno, the men resemble Howard from Fresh Meat. Instead of the tweed jackets and corduroy trousers you associate with traditional literary events, Palahniuk’s audience is clad mainly in novelty pyjamas and plastic devil horns.
He takes to the stage and gives the crowd a choice: do they want to hear a brand new story, or his notorious tale Guts, which was responsible for the aforementioned 18 faintings? Not a single hand goes up for Guts, to the tangible disappointment of the organisers who have optimistically enlisted medics to wait in the wings.
After the reading, and despite the Doomed-emblazoned stage display, Fight Club questions feature heavily in the Q&A. I ask Palahniuk why he thinks that book (and David Fincher’s 1999 film) resonated so strongly with people.
“I think people have an unresolved relationship with violence,” he explains. “It frightens them. So the idea of consensual violence – violence you can explore in a mutually agreed context – helps deal with this fear. People can tell their friends, ‘I need you to hit me, otherwise I’ll always be terrified of being hit.’”
People do tell their friends this, and their friends do hit them. Palahniuk has stacks of photos to prove it, all sent by grinning, bloodied men after life-affirming backyard beatings. Has anyone ever invited him to one of these consensual conflicts?
“No, but somebody punched me in San Francisco recently. This kid leaped onstage and hit me as hard as he could. He was hauled away, but he came back later with a bottle of wine.”
No hard feelings, then?
He shakes his head. “Now he has a new story to tell, and so do I.”
CAR CRASH LITERATURE
It’s not the only new story Palahniuk has in relation to Fight Club. Next year will see the release of the hugely anticipated sequel.
“I’m doing it as a graphic novel,” he tells me. “It’s set 10 years after the original, and it’s about Tyler Durden’s former followers, who are now middle-aged, married and wishing they still had that chaos Tyler provided in their lives.”
This is obviously excellent news for Fight Club fans, but the beginning of a fresh project can be bittersweet for Palahniuk himself. The actual act of writing, he admits, is not always enjoyable. He will “quite regularly” repulse himself with an idea that flashes into his head:
“I can usually put everything [I think of] on paper, but sometimes I can’t read it aloud because it would make me weep. That’s why I take massive amounts of [the sedative] Lorazepam when I do these readings. It’s the only way to shut down my emotional reaction to the material. If you see me with what looks like a third nipple, that’s a Lorazepam in my pocket. These stories may upset people, but they upset me much more.”
So why keep doing the tours? Why put yourself through it? He pauses to consider this. “Because I’m not going to live forever,” he says, finally. “And don’t you want to do the most challenging and extraordinary things while you’re still alive?”
It’s hardly surprising that mortality looms large in Palahniuk’s mind at present. Last year he was involved in a near-fatal accident when a truck ploughed into his driveway, crushing his car with him inside it. While most of us would have reacted by screaming obscenities and/or soiling ourselves, Palahniuk’s first instinct was to “figure out what the moment was evocative of”.
“As I sat there, trapped in the wreckage, I realised the truck had hit me exactly how Jack hits Tyler in Fight Club; in the ear, knocking him sideways. That was a scene I’d based on my Catholic Communion when I was 13. The bishop was supposed to pat us on the cheek to ‘wake us’ into new consciousness, but my bishop really hit me, slapped me hard, wrenching my neck right back. Being knocked sideways by that truck felt like a similar ‘awakening’ moment.”
Backstage in Sheffield, Palahniuk looks like he could use another ‘awakening’ moment right now.
He’s exhausted, having taken in London, Manchester and south Yorkshire in one day. And there’s still Hull, Brighton and another London event this week.
As we traipse out of the venue, past three disconsolate-looking, unneeded medics, I ask if, after all these years, he still gets nervous before reading in public. He shakes his head and smiles, tapping what appears to be a third nipple beneath his breast pocket.
Doomed is out now (Jonathan Cape)
(Photography: Hal Shinnie)