I have a real love/hate relationship with Chuck Palahniuk. For some reason I just have to read his novels yet, more often than not, I finish disappointed. Not too long ago I read Haunted which was either a novel told in stories or a collection of stories glued together with a covering story straight out of the Villa Diodati. But the primary glue that turns this novel into a unified whole is the excess of gore.
Palahniuk seems to have taken 23 stories, all of a haunting nature, usually involving some brutal injury to the body, and wrapped it in an even gorier cover story involving characters with allegorical names who are locked in an old theater complex and promised a lot of money when they are set free. Oh, the other stipulation is that each person had to write a story. Palahniuk also throws in a lame poem before each story which doesn’t appear to add anything to the text.
At first, the stories are of an outré nature and the interstitial story of the writer’s retreat is reasonably bland, if not too stupid; but the level of gore seems to creep upwards as the text proceeds, especially in the narration surrounding the writers’ stories. Towards the end of the book we read with a very detailed and extended description of the decomposition of a human body laying out in the forest for days. We all want to make our mark on the world but I suspect not too many of us imagined ending up and stinky wet spot in our own mud.
Toward the end of the novel, Palahniuk tries to get philosophical:
“Telling a story is how we digest what happens to us. … the stories that you can digest, that you can tell—you can take control of those past moments. You can shape them, craft them. Master them. And use them to your own good. Those are stories as important as food. Those are stories you can use to make people laugh or cry or sick. Or scared. To make people feel the way you felt. To help exhaust that past moment for them and for you. Until that moment is dead. Consumed. Digested. Absorbed.”
Muriel Rukeyser makes a much more concise statement on this same subject: “The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.” Compare this idea with Palahniuk’s theory that every wet stain on the carpet or every dead cat clogging the toilet or every slab of thigh-meat in the microwave, tells a story.
Haunted is over 400 pages and often quite disturbing. It is messy and gory and of little literary value. But much like Hemingway, the novel may suck but a few good stories can stand on their own and perhaps survive Palahniuk’s unnecessary, overwritten and ultimately silly cover story.