The Hunger Artists

By Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, May 29, 2005

HAUNTED: A Novel of Stories

By Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday. 404 pp. $24.95

This guy Chuck Palahniuk, he wrote Fight Club and Choke and Lullaby and some other good books. Fight Club , that was really good, and it was a great movie, too. It was dark, that kind of dark you get when you have a really clever idea, a surprising plot twist, some scary disturbed characters. But this writer, Palahniuk, he makes them feel real to you, like you might not want to sit next to these people on a bus but if you met them in another situation -- like a 12-step meeting or summer camp or the fight club in Fight Club -- under those circumstances, you might think, "These are people I could relate to, these are people I'd like to know more about, maybe, as long as I could get away from them if I had to."

Just so you understand, this guy Palahniuk, he's written some good books. But not this one.

You might pick this one up and read the premise on the back of the dust jacket: "WRITER'S RETREAT: ABANDON YOUR LIFE FOR THREE MONTHS. Just disappear. Leave behind everything that keeps you from creating your masterpiece. Your job and family and home, all those obligations and distractions -- put them on hold for three months . Live with like-minded people in a setting that supports total immersion in your work. Food and lodging free for those who qualify. . . . Before it's too late, live the life you dream about. Spaces very limited."

You'd think that sounds like an ideal scenario for Palahniuk -- a chance to skewer our notions of fiction, of reality, of our culture's obsession with fame and the notion that writing is just another route to celebrity; that anybody, just anybody, can write a book. Because he gets this group of people together, people with silly cartoony made-up names, and they all want to be writers, or at least they all want to be famous. And they all get on a bus and go to this place that they think is going to be great.

Only it's not. It turns out to be an old movie theater, and once they're inside, they can't get out, like they're locked in for three months; and the food is all freeze-dried, not gourmet at all, and everything is pretty disgusting and shabby and meaningless and depressing and disgusting. Did I say that twice? I forget, because this book, it's kind of repetitive, and it's also really, really gross.

Each character in the book tells a short story. Each also tells a poem, which is not such a good idea, as the poems aren't very good. In Lullaby , Palahniuk's really creepy novel from 2003, there's a poem that kills people who hear it, but I don't think anyone's going to die reading stuff like this: "The film: a shadow of a reflection of an image of an illusion."

In between the stories, there's a narrative about the people locked up in the movie theater. This isn't a very good idea either, as the people mostly complain about each other, and the freeze-dried food. They also talk a lot about celebrity and reality shows, without really saying anything new about them. After a while they start cutting off their fingers and toes, I guess because they're hungry. Some of them die. They start eating each other. Which isn't in itself a terrible idea, because some people like to read about stuff like that, as in the Hannibal Lecter books, and Marianne Wiggins's John Dollar , and even stories about the Donner Party. But in Haunted , even the cannibalism is kind of boring.

But some of the stories are good. Maybe you've heard about this story, "Guts," which is the one story everyone's heard about, because Palahniuk, when he read it at bookstores and readings and places, people who heard him read it, they threw up, or fainted, or something.

But that story, "Guts," it's pretty funny, in a totally gross-out way, and I laughed at it, and I didn't throw up. But only a few of the other stories are as good as that first one. "Foot Work," the hippie Mother Nature's story, is funny in a satirical way; it's about foot reflexologists and people like that who become assassins. And "Obsolete," the last story in the book, is excellent; kind of like a George Saunders story, or an episode of the old "Twilight Zone" TV series gone berserk. But that's only two stories out of 23. And don't forget the poems, and the linking narrative. So not a lot of bang for your book.

The stories in Haunted reminded me a little bit of stuff by Roald Dahl; not his kids' books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Witches , but his stories for adults, the ones in Someone Like You and Switch Bitch and Kiss Kiss . Only the stories in Haunted have a lot more explicit sex in them. But it's not much like real sex. It's more like the kind of sex you imagine if maybe you're a 13-year-old boy who doesn't really know anything about it and likes jokes about bodily fluids and really bad smells. Sort of Garbage Pail Kids sex. Only, like I said, kind of boring.

"To become a household word," says Chef Assassin, "all you need is a rifle." Or maybe just a movie and a big book contract.

Because, by the end of this book, I was wondering if maybe Chuck Palahniuk got his idea from real life. Like, I was wondering if maybe his publishers locked him in a room for three months and told him he had to write a book really fast, and they'd pay him a lot of money if he did. That happens to writers when they become celebrities. They think maybe it's a good idea, because it's a lot of money, and their fans -- the people who buy their books no matter what -- well, they're going to buy this one too.

But you know, if something like that happened, not in a story I mean, but in real life, to a cult writer as talented and cutting-edge and interesting and popular as Chuck Palahniuk -- well, that would be really scary. ยท

Elizabeth Hand's eighth novel (now in progress) is titled "Generation Loss."

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