Transvestites. Dildos. Used condoms and dried up maxi pads caught in a chain link fence. Creative masturbation techniques.
If these words and images are a bit too much for you, then you probably wouldn’t like Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction. Which is unfortunate, as they have very little to do with Palahniuk’s work. But, they are there, used as tools in his absurdist, transgressive satires. And what Palahniuk has to say is worthwhile to all. Yet, most don’t get it because they can’t handle transgressive fiction.
Transgressive fiction is a literary genre that deals with typically taboo subjects, such as sex, drugs, violence, and crime. It is based on the notion that “knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge,” (Soukhanov). Truly, Palahniuk’s novels provide much knowledge gained through his exploration of gross, taboo subjects.
In most of Palahniuk’s works, his characters are empty, seeking meaning and vitality in their seemingly useless lives. They go to extremes to better themselves and the society around them, to wake up and feel alive. Via the character’s journey, readers are often exposed to gritty social commentary and truths that we ignore or even bury in our everyday lives. Palahniuk forces us to examine who we are and what it’s all about.
Palahniuk is not the first transgressive author, nor is he the first to shock readers into paying attention. Some well-known transgressive authors include: D.H. Lawrence, Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Anthony Burgess, Douglas Coupland, Bret Easton Ellis, and Irvine Welsh.
Through the reading of novels by these authors and Palahniuk, we are forced to evaluate ourselves, the present society which we live in, and our place in society. Though I’ve only read four of Palahniuk’s novels, each novel has given me a tremendous amount of topics to consider in relation to my society. How great does my consumer lifestyle define and drive me? How have men been affected or altered by their shifting role in society? Women? Just how affected and susceptible am I to the constant noise I am assaulted by daily (traffic, cell phones, loud conversations, music, etc.)? What is the impact of traffic on our society?
And the main question, the ultimate existential question, the one thrust in your face as you read Palahniuk and other transgressive authors: how do I fill the void? Sex? Violence? Consumerism? Exercise? Work? TV? Blogging? Love? This is what makes fiction like Palahniuk’s most important and is most effectively done through his use of disturbing elements.
For readers who dismiss and even violently oppose Palahniuk’s literary merits, I consider the same observation made by Shot Dunyan in Palahniuk’s Rant. Shot complains, “Everybody want[s] the same mass-marketed crap [….] just wanting something to kill time. Nothing dark and edgy or challenging. Nothing artsy. Just so long as it’s got a happy ending,” (114).
Do you want a happy ending? Or are you interested in exploring the grittier parts of society in an effort to better understand today’s human experience? If so, I recommend that you check out the novels of Chuck Palahniuk. They are truly American classics.
1. Start with my introductory novel: Lullaby
2. Move on to something a bit weirder: Invisible Monsters