23 September 2010

Behind the Green (Room) Door

After a couple of stories that arguably fit with the horror theme, Palahniuk shifts gears. There's nothing vaguely terrifying, eerie or mysterious going on in this story. In it, Miss America and a "slick guy" sit in the green room of a television studio where some mid-sized town's local version of "Good Morning, America" is produced. They are there to sell products, she an exercise wheel, he a set of investment tapes.

The SG is the more experienced of the two, so a large part of the narrative is taken up with his advice/commentary on these TV shows and what it takes to succeed on them. We learn a little about Miss America's back story. She was once fat, but through diet and exercise thinned down to the point where she looked much better. She is also given to wearing pink. There's not really much else to her. As she herself says, "Losing all that blubber is the only really heroic thing I've ever done... If I gain it back, than it'll be like I never lived." I wonder if it's intentional for this character, so objectified and labeled by society that she has become shallow, to be portrayed in such a superficial way. Is it just poor writing, or does Palahniuk want us to know that he, too, is part of the problem?

As for Mr. SG, he's one of those typical Palahniuk creations who can rattle off facts about some chosen field. Here his obsession is broadcast media, especially television. One of the facts he sites is how cameras collapse three dimensions into two, rendering everything flatter. Because of this, faces with many angles look more interesting than those with less. Advances in image technology, however, tend to relatively bring out the details of faces, so those sharp angles might seem less attractive on current broadcasts than they used to. You could argue that Palahniuk's general point about the way the medium distorts reality is still true, but I wonder if his topicality means that some of his fiction will date rather quickly.

We learn that Mr. SG's parents were both product spokesmen who traveled from town to town to appear on morning shows. His mom is dead, but his dad, who didn't stick around for very long, is the old guy who is currently in the studio of the same station, his presentation delayed by some national catastrophe.

Overall, it's a pretty dull story. If Miss America weren't such a one-note character, seeing her back story might be interesting. Definitely no horror elements, save perhaps the horror of being around people lacking in personalities. There's some potentially interesting commentary about how mass media ends up altering what it portrays, though this hardly provides any deep insights.

16 September 2010

Foot Work

This story is told by Mother Nature, who is something of a hippie New Age type, with her long skirts, henna-painted skin and patchouli smell. She used to be a reflexologist, trained in treating medical conditions by massaging people's feet. It's not a lucrative career, but one day she meets a former classmate who now appears to be living an upper-class lifestyle. The classmate introduces MN to the world of "foot jobs," in which reflexologists use foot manipulation to give clients orgasms that leave them "to weak to walk for the next couple of days." In order to improve her financial situation, MN also gets into the business of foot jobs. At first, she earns a good amount of money, but she soon finds herself competing with too many other former idealists now turned high-priced call girls/guys and being in hock to the mafioso who acts as her pimp. Her friend introduces her to the next "dark side" application of reflexology, as an assassination technique. It is already too late for MN, who now has to go into hiding.

When Palahniuk is on his game, as he is here, he has a talent for coming up with amusingly twisted concepts that seem not entirely implausible. While not as horrific, claustrophobic or suspenseful as "Guts" the story still manages to create something of a paranoid vibe. It's world of reflexologist hit men, Reiki assassins, Feng Shui murder techniques, etc. suggests a darker, quasi-supernatural truth behind placid everyday reality. This story also continues the theme of people willing to employ rather odd means in order to better "get their rocks off."

One quick note: I'm leaving Post-Production, The Nightmare Box, Poster Child and Cassandra until the end. These four stories constitute their own, separate narrative, which can be thought of as the Cassandra Sequence.

15 September 2010

A Change of Direction/The Poetry of Chuck Palahniuk

I've been neglecting to continue with my review of Haunted for a variety of reasons. In part, because as I thought of the project, it became somewhat daunted. However, I've found inspiration to pick up the project again from two rather distinct sources. The first is Julio Cortázar's seminal novel, Hopscotch, written in 155 chapters which can be read in standard order or in a more convoluted "skipping around" manner. (Explained more fully in this Wikipedia entry.) A couple of days ago, while reading it, I found myself pondering whether the two different strategies represented two different ways of reading the novel or in fact represented two distinct novels. Is there an alternate order that would make the novel more powerful, more entertaining, more insightful than either of the two approaches offered by Cortázar?

The second is from Mr. Palahniuk himself in this interview where he describes his goal as the following:
In Haunted, I wanted to mimic the appearance of “Best of” collections. For example, The Collected Works of Poe. Those books alternate stories with novellas and poems.
When I first read that, I thought mainly of how it backed up my feeling that Haunted suffered from a certain lack of focus, that it was a fix-up novel in search of an identity. But in light of Hopscotch, I though I might follow Palahniuk's logic to its inevitable conclusion and treat it as a Collected Works of...

I've decided to reconstruct this "novel" along somewhat different lines, treating as some might treat an anthology. I've already read all of the poetry. Next, I plan to read and review the short stories (save "Guts," about which I've already written) as individual stories) and will finish off with a review of the novella/framing story.

I've already discussed the poetry a little in a previous entry, and reading all of it in a couple of sittings only serves to confirm that there isn't much here in traditional poetic terms of rhyme, meter, flow. There's a common visual element of the subject of the poem standing on a stage, while a thematically appropriate series of images is projected onto them. This element serves to express the way these characters are obscured by their own stories, a visual analogue of the way the character names, based on their backgrounds, crimes, etc., take the place of any sort of personal or family name. (The relationship between the story and the teller being one of the central themes of Haunted.)

One question I had hoped to resolve in rereading Haunted was, "Is this a horror novel?" On the one hand, there's the name, the cover, the fact that it would seem to be the third novel Palahniuk wrote after announcing he would write three novels "reinventing horror," and the Bram Stoker nomination it received. But there's still the question of the content of the book and to what degree it either uses horror elements and/or manages to be scary.

I'd have to say that the poetry falls by and large into the not horror. There's nothing particularly scary, atmospheric, moody. Some of them are amusing and/or transgressive, such as Mother Nature's tale of trying to enter a convent or The Matchmaker's account of his twisted, uh, matchmaking. Some, as with the matchmaker, try to fill in some of the details on these characters. Often, Palahniuk uses them to hit the themes and concepts that the novel also touches on elsewhere.

There's a degree of earnestness to some of these, such as "Evolution," which argues for life as a gift earned by other's sacrifice, and ends asking, "How will you show their birth and work and death were worthwhile?" Or, "Looking Back," in which a woman wistfully talks about raising a child. Sometimes this degree of earnestness can feel a bit heavy-handed as with the Earl of Slander's "Trade Secrets," which ends:
A journalist has a right...
...and a duty to destroy
those golden calves he helps create.
It might be an interesting thought if it were somewhat original.

Overall, the "poems" are a bit of a dud. They don't really hold up on their own, they don't contribute anything in terms of atmosphere, and they often touch on themes that are developed more in depth elsewhere. The poems mostly serve as something of a sideshow or distraction, helping to give the book the appearance of being more complex than it really is.

Next up, I'm going to pick up on the short stories. Since I've already covered "Guts," the next story will be "Foot Work."