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Chuck Palahniuk
London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.
£10.00, 260 pages, ISBN 0-224-06389-8.

Adrian Smith
University of Nottingham

Chuck Palahniuk is probably most famous for being the author of Fight Club (1996), the novel on which the famously violent movie Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) was based. That novel, along with others such as Choke (2001) and Invisible Monsters (1999) saw Palahniuk writing in gritty, disturbing prose about terrifying ideas. With Lullaby (2002), the novel that immediately precedes Diary, Palahniuk began his first investigations into the realm of the supernatural, a trend that he continues with Diary, a darkly funny novel, which straddles the borders between mystery and horror fiction.

It is clear from reading Diary, Chuck Palahniuk's sixth offering, that the author who has been described as America's favourite nihilist has lost none of his dark humour. What sets this novel apart from his previous ones, however, is that there is woven into the disturbing plot of Diary a poignancy that has not been evident in his earlier works. Palahniuk has finally created a protagonist with whom one can sympathise without feeling uneasy.

When Diary was released, it was described as being a reinvention of the horror genre. For all that this promised, the typical Palahniuk tactic of shocking for the sake of shock is missing from the greater part of this book. There are occasional flashes of Palahniuk’s earlier, more disturbing style in scenes of self-mutilation, descriptions of the contractions that are suffered by a comatose body, and the obvious suffering of Misty herself, whose day-to-day survival is described as “A couple drinks. A couple aspirin. Repeat” [p. 19]. Palahniuk having dampened down the razor’s edge style he adopted in his earlier writing, and having lost his habit of describing truly gruesome scenes, Diary comes on a lot more slowly than his previous works. Whereas Lullaby read like a punch in the face, Diary is much more subtle and sinister, and none the worse for it.

Diary is part mystery and part horror, about a young woman Misty Marie Kleinman, an art student, and Peter Wilmot, the strange and aristocratic young man whom she marries. The two move to Peter’s home on the none-too-subtly-named Waytansea (Wait-and-see) Island. It is here that Misty discovers that the works of art she painted in art school were the exact representations of the fairy-tale American scenes and buildings on this island. The idyll of the island, before too long, becomes tarnished with billboards and tasteless rich tourists. The inhabitants of the island believe that through Misty’s art will come salvation for Waytansea. Misty is kept drugged in a hotel room, and is forced to paint against her will with her eyes taped shut (taking the phrase ‘tortured artist’ to a whole new level). It is here that Palahniuk seems to have put most of his thought into the novel. He makes us think about the preservation of purity, and the lengths to which we might go to achieve this aim. Is it right that Misty is to be sacrificed for the greater good? As events spin out of Misty’s control it becomes apparent that, even though she knows that the fate of the island depends on the deaths of a hotel full of tourists, she is powerless to prevent the carnage that ends the novel. Given Misty’s lack of control over her own fate, we may be given to questioning exactly how much power we have to fashion our own lives, compared to the extent to which outside forces dictate the roads down which we must travel. This last point is certainly a change for Palahniuk who, in his earlier books Choke and Fight Club, delivered the message that you can change who you are, and become the person you want to be.

The book is written in the form of Misty’s coma diary, written as her husband is languishing in a coma after a failed attempt to asphyxiate himself with exhaust fumes from the family car. His failed suicide attempt has led to Misty having to work as a waitress in the Waytansea hotel, in order to keep her family housed, clothed and fed. She is not very happy about this, as her vitriolic diary entries concerning Peter, and her increasing dependence on alcohol will attest. The diary is intended for Misty's husband Peter to read in the event that he should ever regain consciousness, and Misty wants him to know exactly how she feels about him: “If you’re reading this, welcome back to reality […] Your name is Peter Wilmot. All you need to understand is you turned out to be one sorry sack of shit” [p. 5].

Palahniuk uses the diary plot device to great effect, keeping the reader off balance from the start of the novel and gradually establishing a feeling of suspense as he fills in the background to the story through Misty's reminiscences. The tone of the novel is driven by the moods that Misty describes herself going through in certain entries in which she makes statements such as "The weather today is increasing concern followed by full-blown dread" [p. 1]; "The weather today is an increasing trend towards denial" [p. 7]; "Today's weather is partly furious with occasional fits of rage" [p. 42]; in an entry written more specifically for her husband’s benefit Misty writes "Just for the record, the weather today is heavy and scratchy and it hurts every time your wife tries to move" [p. 162].

The first entry in the diary, "June 21—The Three-Quarter Moon," starts as a non sequitur that describes how a man from Long Beach has left a rambling message on Peter's answering machine, threatening to have him arrested. The man from Long Beach claims that his bathroom is missing. With surreal entries such as these, in which dissatisfied customers from Peter Wilmot's refurbishment business leave messages stating that various rooms in their house are missing, the plot takes a long time to build into anything other than a straightforward mystery. The doors of the missing rooms of these holiday homes have, it transpires, been plastered over by Peter. On the walls of the rooms, shut away behind the plaster, he has scrawled offensive and obscure messages, hinting at plagues and death to come, threatening “to slaughter all of you as an offering, every fourth generation” [p. 55]. The meaning of these words remains hidden, the messages remain tantalising and inexplicable.

That is until the third part of the novel, in which Palahniuk unveils those supernatural elements of the plot that have, until this point, remained veiled. Having successfully built up the expectation that the ending is going to be “huge,” Chuck does not disappoint. With the supernatural elements of the novel elevated to the foreground, the blood begins to flow and the body count begins to accelerate. The denouement is nothing short of apocalyptic. The true horror though is in Misty’s utterly demoralised reactions to the carnage that closes the novel: “Just for the record, the weather today is calm. Calm and resigned and defeated […] What Misty’s learned is the pain and panic and horror only lasts a minute or two” [p. 259]. The pain, panic and horror may be short lived, but the feeling of disquiet you will feel after finishing this novel will continue for a long time afterwards.


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