Chuck Palahniuk - Snuff love

This article is from 2008.

Chuck Palahniuk - Snuff love

Chuck Palahniuk tells such stark tales that people faint at his readings. Doug Johnstone crosses his legs, girds his loins and chats to the guru of gore

It seems I’ve caught Chuck Palahniuk in the middle of something. ‘Right now I’m trying to get all the blow-up dolls packaged and shipped to Edinburgh,’ he laughs down the phone from his home in Vancouver, Washington. Sorry, what? Sadly, the author is being no more forthcoming, but it’s safe to say that anyone attending his Book Festival event will not be in for a conventional hour’s literary entertainment. ‘Many folks who come and see me have never been to an author event before, so I want to make sure their first event is everything I can give them,’ Palahniuk explains. ‘I’ll be doing as many things as I can cram into the time limit.’

One of those things might be making people faint. The American author best known for 1996’s Fight Club often likes to read a short story called ‘Guts’, about a masturbating accident, which so far has managed to make a total of 73 people pass out on hearing it. ‘I also have a finger story, based on a friend of mine who had an industrial accident,’ Palahniuk laughs. ‘And that’s been giving ‘Guts’ a run for its money recently.’

As for the blow-up dolls, they might have something to do with the author’s ninth novel, Snuff, due out just before his appearance in Edinburgh. For fans of the transgressional novelist’s work it won’t disappoint. The action takes places over one day, as a fading porn actress, Cassie Wright, attempts to break the world gang-bang record by sleeping with 600 men in a row. The story is told from the green room, packed with naked men waiting their turn, and the perspective switches between three of them – Mr 600, Mr 72 and Mr 137 – to Sheila, the production assistant given the task of wrangling all these lubed-up guys into order.

It’s safe to assume we’re not in Alexander McCall Smith territory here. Snuff is outrageous and controversial, sure, but it’s also beautifully crafted, full of literary intent and often laugh-out-loud funny. There is a running joke about porn film titles (Lay Misty For Me, The Italian Hand Job, etc), as well as some powerful comment on the vacuousness of modern American society. Snuff certainly doesn’t glamourise the porn industry, as Mr 137 says at one point: ‘Porn is a job you only take after you abandon all hope’.

So did Palahniuk have his opinion of the industry changed by writing the book? ‘I used to think porn was exciting,’ he says. ‘Now, I think porn functions like a bedtime story for adults, because it’s short, kind of exciting, and it always, always ends the same way. There is the ultimate comfort of knowing this thing is not going to end any differently no matter what happens before the ending.’

Snuff doesn’t exactly end happily ever after, but there is a faint glimmer of hope for the book’s damaged characters by the time the final, shocking denouement arrives. The character of Cassie Wright is partly based on retired porn actress Annabel Chong, who notoriously set a world record gang-bang of 251 sex acts, claiming it was empowering women, before it was subsequently revealed she’d been gang raped earlier in life.

‘In a way it is empowering for Cassie, but not in the way she thinks,’ Palahniuk explains. ‘Because she’s making the choice to destroy who she is, with the idea of providing something better for those she leaves behind. In the end she does that, but not in the way she anticipated.’ Snuff clocks in at 197 pages, and is a compulsive read from start to finish. According to the author, its brevity and style was a direct reaction to his last novel, Rant, a more complex and sprawling but equally compelling read.

‘I try to do one more extreme then a less extreme book,’ he says. ‘Rant was less extreme, so with Snuff I could do everything I wanted to do, I didn’t have to hold back. Rant was so long, I was determined to write another book like Fight Club where I can do the whole thing in six weeks and make a party out of it. I swore too that I would never write another book over 200 pages, that’s my new goal.’

For now, Fight Club remains the book Palahniuk is best known for, but that may well soon change. Various other novels are in production as movies with Choke, about a sex-addicted conman, out in September. Not that Palahniuk cares what his legacy as a writer is going to be. ‘I really don’t give a fuck about my legacy,’ he laughs. ‘Oh my god, I wish writers would write with the idea that the book is going to be thrown away in a couple of years, or a couple of weeks. The literary world takes itself way too seriously.’

Chuck Palahniuk, 16 Aug, 8pm, £9 (£7); Doug Johnstone & Toby Litt, 16 Aug, 8.30pm, £9 (£7).

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