Chuck Palahniuk is one of the most popular, outrageous, shocking and scarily talented contemporary American writers, a gross-out-thriller author extraordinaire, according to The New York Observer, and, says The Washington Post, one of the most feverish imaginations in American letters. He has been compared to Jonathan Swift and Kurt Vonnegut, and his dozen books have sold a total of 4 million copies. Author of such mega–sensations as Fight Club and Choke, Palahniuk has a zealously devoted cult following and, increasingly, a mainstream one as well. People magazine wrote, "Among sick puppies, Palahniuk is top dog." It was meant as the highest praise.
Pygmy, Palahniuk's latest novel, is typically inventive, hilarious, moving and deeply disturbing. Written from the perspective of a killer disguised as a foreign-exchange student and bent on the destruction of America, the book is replete with severed body parts and spewing bodily fluids, contains a grotesque rape and is a vicious, comical satire of everything from Christianity (the bogus faith of a false prophet) to education (calibrated to degrade all dignity) to the sexual peccadilloes of the rich and famous.
Fight Club remains Palahniuk's signature work, having been made into a movie by director David Fincher, starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Pitt's character, Tyler Durden, charismatic and terrifying, compelling and sadistic, has his own following of fans who celebrate (and sometimes emulate) his antics, which are designed to instill mayhem and express disgust with the status quo. Durden, working as a waiter in the movie, farted on the meringue, sneezed on braised endive and, as for the cream of mushroom soup, well. Like Durden, fans of the book have founded real fight clubs where men come to beat the hell out of one another.
Along with his books and the movies based on them (Choke, starring Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston, was released last year), Palahniuk is also known for his packed book-tour events that are part reading and part performance art. Touring for the 2008 book Snuff, about a porn star aiming to set the world gang-bang record (her goal is 600 "fornications" in a day), Palahniuk tossed inflatable sex dolls into the audience. Other events have elicited dramatic reactions from some audience members; at readings of Palahniuk's short story "Guts," originally published in Playboy, more than 200 people have fainted.
Palahniuk's own background story reads like one of his more horror-filled novels. Born in 1962 in Pasco, Washington, Palahniuk has said he had "a regular, tense American childhood." The truth is it was tenser than many. When he was five, his father came close to severing one of Chuck's fingers with an ax, on purpose. His parents divorced when he was 13. Later Chuck was let in on a family secret: As a child, his father had hidden under a bed and watched his father, Chuck's grandfather, murder Chuck's grandmother and then shoot himself. Calamity and terror continued when, in 1999, Palahniuk's father and his girlfriend were shot to death by her ex-husband.
Palahniuk graduated from the University of Oregon and has worked as a diesel mechanic and journalist. In his mid-30s he began to attend writing workshops run by novelist Tom Spanbauer, a renowned Portland, Oregon writer. Spanbauer's concept of "dangerous writing" inspired Palahniuk's close-to-the-bone subject matter.
Upon the publication of Pygmy, Playboy sent contributing editor David Sheff to meet Palahniuk in Portland, where the author lives. "Palahniuk was correct when he said people expect Tyler Durden or Charles Manson when they first meet him," Sheff says. "I did. But he's far from either. Instead, he's soft-spoken, gentle and extremely thoughtful. He's also a captivating storyteller. He has you hysterically laughing, and then his stories, much like his books, take a sharp turn, often to the macabre or heartbreaking or both."
PALAHNIUK: I'm just having some fun. I find it nice to put two words together that are almost a paradox. Operation sounds so officious and havoc so chaotic. The same with project and mayhem. Mayhem sounds like fun. Havoc sounds like fun. Fight Club does too. I mean, it's a club.
PLAYBOY: Pygmy looks at humanity with disgust. Do you?
PALAHNIUK: It's just that I've always been fascinated by imagining the way someone would see us if they had no context or if their perspective were coldly objective. Pygmy witnesses kids downloading porn onto their cell phones. He thinks they're instructional videos. But he thinks the instructors must be complete idiots because they can't manage to get the semen inside the vagina. In fact, it goes everywhere but into the vagina.
PLAYBOY: You've said Project Mayhem, Tyler Durden's organization devoted to disrupting and bringing down society, was inspired by a real group called the Cacophony Society. Are you an active participant?
PALAHNIUK: I haven't been for a very long time, but I used to be. I did a Santa event once.
PLAYBOY: A Santa event?
PALAHNIUK: Thousands of Santa Clauses, all masked, are let loose in the middle of a city. They cause all kinds of problems—traffic congestion, confusion and chaos—which is the point. The females have gotten into some trouble for indecent exposure. They're masked and identity-less, so they tend to flash their tits a lot.
PLAYBOY: You once said Fight Club is a kind of Joy Luck Club for men. What did you mean?
PALAHNIUK: There are many templates for how women can come together and talk: The Joy Luck Club, How to Make an American Quilt, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. They present all these arbitrary social groups that allow women to come together and talk about their experience. Men don't have those sorts of things. More than anything else, that's what Fight Club is. It's a place for men to be together and talk.
PLAYBOY: A place where they beat the hell out of one another.
PALAHNIUK: Well, it does seem to help if were doing something physical. Men don't usually sit around just talking, as women do. More often we're doing something. It's like when I was with my friends talking while we were pulling down Sheetrock in my office, and all these live mice—hundreds of them—were raining down on us and running around everywhere.
PLAYBOY: People have created real-life fight clubs after reading your book. Does that surprise you?
PALAHNIUK: I think they've always existed. There's a long tradition of them, though maybe they weren't called fight clubs. Many cultures had regular places where people would fight as a ritual. Often it was a mating ritual—a contest for males to find a reproductive mate. The winning fighter presents himself as the more viable, dynamic reproductive partner.
PLAYBOY: Have you been to any modern-day fight clubs?
PALAHNIUK: No, but I've heard people have this cathartic, almost religious experience as two people battle.
PLAYBOY: Are you a fighter?
PALAHNIUK: I was in a fight when I worked on the assembly line at Freightliner Trucks. I was installing front axles. It was a hellishly hot summer day and even hotter near these baking ovens. If you didn't do your job right, you'd be towed into the oven along with the trucks. It was misery. The only ventilation came from giant rotating fans. There was so much oil in the air from the pneumatic tools that the grilles of the fans were furry with black filaments of oil and dust. One day I was behind schedule installing a front axle, and a co-worker at my station, Jimmy, said, "Look up." I looked up just as he took a broom handle and hit the fan. All that accumulated filth flew into my face, and I was completely covered with soot on top of the sweat from the heat. I was already behind in my work, and I just lost it. I chased Jimmy down the assembly line and tackled him. I just beat on him. We fought and fought. Everybody on the assembly line cheered. When it was over we all just went back to work. I realized in that moment we'd expressed this horrible misery that everybody had been feeling that day. After that Jimmy was my best friend, and I couldn't get rid of him. Since then I've been fascinated by the dynamic of that day.
PLAYBOY: Did you feel like the guys in Fight Club feel after their fights? More alive?
PALAHNIUK: I felt exhausted. I compare it to the experience of Pentecostal church services or, in 1984, George Orwell's Two Minutes Hate—those really intense, exhausting venting rituals we have. So Fight Club provided one. I thought of it as a disco but with fighting. You'd ask someone to fight, and they'd say yes or no. Like my experience at Freightliner, fighting brings exhaustion and also the permission that comes from being injured.
PLAYBOY: What permission comes from being injured?
PALAHNIUK: Permission not to have to handle everything for a moment, to shut down for a moment. Everything else disappears.
PLAYBOY: You describe your Fight Club narrator as a "tourist" who visits support groups for people with serious illnesses like testicular cancer and leukemia. What inspired the idea?
PALAHNIUK: I had volunteered at hospices and was around all these people who were dying. I saw that people open up in a different, very raw way when they're dealing with death. Around death you can have bold, cathartic experiences. We miss them in life. Maybe every once in a while you can get them from a movie but not very often. Sometimes you get them from a funeral. It's similar to when something horrible happens in your life, and you come away from it shaken but also in a way settled and peaceful. The support groups were an awful and intense way to schedule a kind of structured chaos that would allow the rest of your life to be calm by comparison.
PLAYBOY: Besides your fans who have formed fight clubs, readers of Choke have reportedly copied your narrator, intentionally choking themselves on food. The narrator does it to have an intimate moment with people who would then feel responsible for him. After the experience they send him regular checks.
PALAHNIUK: Yeah, a guy was doing the choking behavior in Florida to meet attractive women. He'd try to get them to save him and embrace him. He was arrested, but they found there were no laws that forbade it, so he was released.
PLAYBOY: If someone were hurt or died in a Fight Club or by choking that was inspired by your books, would you feel responsible?
PALAHNIUK: My big defense is if I can think about something, whatever it is—the choking thing, a fight club—a million other people can and probably have too. For example, in Fight Club when Tyler works as a projectionist in a movie theater, he cuts pornography into the films he shows. People in the theater get a glimpse of a penis or some sex act. I wrote it in the original story, and someone said, "You can't write that. Someone will get the idea." But someone already had the idea. People were doing it. I'd heard about it from friends. Then when the Fight Club movie went into production, the director, David Fincher, said, "I was the projectionist in my high school. I used to do it." He spliced porn into movies too. It's like the stories of Disney animators inserting a frame or two of porn into Disney movies. It's the same impulse.
PLAYBOY: In Fight Club Tyler Durden pees into the soup he's serving and farts on the food. Do you know people who have done that?
PALAHNIUK: I knew people who worked at the big hotels in downtown Portland, and yeah, they would tell stories like that. There was a kid in England—a very handsome, well-presented kid—who told me, "I work in an upscale restaurant in London, and we do things to celebrities' food all the time." I said, "Tell me one person." He said, "I can't because there are only two of these restaurants, and it'd be too easy to find me." I wasn't going to sign his book until he told me one person. So he sheepishly goes, "Margaret Thatcher has eaten my sperm." I started laughing. As soon as I did, he got bold. He said, "At least five times."