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."

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