It was a miserable, muggy few days in New York last week, but in Portland, Oregon, it was a cool 80 degrees. “I’ve been gardening all day. I probably have a world-class sunburn,” says Chuck Palahniuk—not the first response you’d imagine when asking the cult-favorite author how he spent his day. But behind the twisted sense of humor and the violence that pulsates through his work, Palahniuk is simply a guy spilling it all out and giving our minds a place to play. Universally known for his testosterone-driven psychological odyssey Fight Club, Palahniuk shocked readers with his unique and vicious tales of self-mutating and self-mutilating characters in a bleak world, each searching for something worth living—or, hell, dying—for.
And although Palahniuk has been steadily releasing novels, his third, Invisible Monsters, still has fans raving. The novel was written in 1993 but spent time floating around publishing houses in New York waiting for a bite. However, it wasn’t until the success of Fight Club that the novel finally saw its paperback release in 1999. Since, fans have been petitioning for a hard cover edition and almost 13 years later, it’s finally here. “Norton came to me and asked if I could write an introduction for it,” says Palahniuk, who first wrote Invisible Monsters like a game of hide and seek. “I counter-proposed that I just restructure the whole book like I had originally done it.” Out on bookshelves now, Invisible Monsters Remix is essentially what would happen if you took the original text, sliced it up, threw the pieces in a hat, and plucked out the chapters one by one. The story strays from its original linear structure, jumping chapters and revealing secrets that managed to slip between the cracks in of the original. We stole a moment with Palahniuk to talk about experimenting with a narrative, stealing prescription drugs from open houses, and rebelling against culture.
Looking back on it now, do you wish you had released Invisible Monsters in this way from the start, or do you think people would have not been as receptive to it?
I think they wouldn’t have been as receptive to it. Boy, we’re talking 1999, and originally the book was first shopped around it was before Fight Club, so it would have been 1993 or 1994. At that point I think people were much more linear than they are now. The internet and cable television options have made people a little more into browsing or grazing as opposed to linearly going through a story.
Having it more experimental like this you have to put more faith in your readers. Was that something that you thought about when releasing it in this form? The reader has to weave their own way through it.
And most of them would have already read the book; they’re kind of re-buying the story they already know, so the more I could do at this point, the better for them.
I hadn’t read it in a very long time, and when reading it this way your brain sort of processes things differently because you’re driving through it in a new way. I really enjoyed that because everything was a surprise.
Isn’t it odd that almost sort of synchronicity, a meaningful coincidence, that people pull books off the shelf and just sort of open them to find the answer we’re looking for? And it’s kind of like that with the internet, but with algorithms it’s a little more manipulated. It doesn’t feel as spontaneous as it does with books or just opening a copy of Vogue.
Your job as a writer, I suppose, is to express what other people can’t. A lot of your work is about these people searching for something in their own way. Was that a big part in writing this book?
It’s kind of a quest book, like The Wizard of Oz. We’re taking a road trip, but it’s not towards a specific ending. I think that quality of directed randomness or searching randomness is echoed by the structure of the book—that aggressive searching without a pre-conceived idea of what the end is going to be.
In a lot of your work the characters are always on the run from something or themselves. In this one, they’re actually constantly moving and, on top of that, the form is constantly moving as well. It lends itself perfectly to this story.
I wish I could do something like that with every book. With Survivor it was so much fun to just number the pages backwards. Little things like that are just things I’ve never seen before in a book, and I wonder why people haven’t tried these experiments before.
It’s interesting because this is something that is unique to novels and literature. It’s intimate and you’re able to experiment and do more things. Is that something that attracts you to writing?
On so many different levels and subject matters. There is just so much that is possible in literature with its consensual nature of consumption–that the reader is intelligent and intimately consuming this thing so this thing can be just about anything! And I’m always shocked that writers don’t try to get away with more.
People say your work always has a nihilistic undertone to everything, but I find it’s not that the characters don’t care rather that they just don’t like the world they’re in and are forced to make a choice.
There’s a quality to it I never really point out—it’s the quality of play. The idea of kind of making a game out of these things and playing them in a different way, not just accepting the game that you’re given by the culture but inventing your own. Something I always said about Fight Club: it is basically a game that people have invented and it’s fun. It’s not any kind of personal quest; it’s just a fun thing to do for a couple hours a week. Invisible Monsters was a book I had written just to have a really good time and it’s that quality of play that I always want to be present in everything I write.
I think you get a sense of that play because even in the darkest moments there’s so much comedy and humor. But it’s not in a way that’s just there to alleviate something; it’s just looking at life from a different perspective.
So often when we generate comedy, we do it by presenting something very dramatic and to have one character not react appropriately—to react in a way that obscures the drama and that creates a laugh.
Did you think that the film adaptation of Fight Club was able to convey that sense of play?
Yes, very much. The film carried that sense of play. It’s always hard in the third act to switch from that comic sense and have a character suddenly engage with the drama and be upset that the game has gone a little too far. It’s that turn that’s always the trickiest to do.
What sort of research did you do for this? You seem to immerse yourself in these worlds when you write, but this one had a lot of knowledge and trivia.
When I was writing, one of the largest gender reassignment clinics was here in Portland. I spent a lot of time with people that were involved with gender reassignment and the different cranial, facial operations, just all of those kind of gruesome aspects that are kind of seen as freakish or glamorous but are actually really a punishing process. And phone sex hotlines were really big when I was writing this, so I went on phone sex hotlines and I would put out the kind of story I was interested in and then I would just take notes as people would come on and randomly hook up and tell their sexual experience or fantasy. I picked up a lot of stories that way…a lot of anecdotes.
What sparked your interest in this subject or the idea for this?
One part of it was traveling to Vancouver with friends in college—something I wrote in as kind of an extra in the new edition—and we would go up there and sell ecstasy in nightclubs. And then a different set of friends a few years after college showed me how to go to real estate open houses and what houses to go to for the best selection of prescription drugs to steal.
So you actually did all those things that were in the book?
Yeah. I was thrilled years later when I saw a piece in Newsweek about how realtors were having people come in and steal prescription drugs and it’s something they never anticipated. I just felt like we were so far ahead of the curve on that. In a way it was about documenting these aspects of my friends that were devious but also admirable. I was just amazed that they seemed like such nice people but they had this kind of evil side to them that I never dreamed of.
Since Fight Club, people always talk about the rest of your work being turned into films. Is that something you want to see realized, or are you happy with them as books?
I am completely happy with them as books. One option of having a movie is, in a way, it’s like having one more draft of the book, and if there’s anything you kind of recognize in the book or you wish you had done differently you have the chance to do it in a movie. I try to write books that depict things that typically a movie couldn’t so in a way I’m writing against adaptation.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think that you would be doing?
Boy, that’s a tough one. I think it would be something that was very physically exhausting because that’s the only other thing that would keep me sane—to be really tired out at the end of every day.
So do you write for your sanity?
Yes. The problem is that when I’m writing, at the end of the day my head is so jazzed up, I’m so full of energy, I typically have to drink. I think if I was tired out physically I wouldn’t have to have a glass of wine every night.
Is there something you’ve done that you think reflected your sensibility as a writer the most, or is there anything you look back on and sort of detest? Or is it that everything important because it represents yourself and your own psychological landscape?
It’s got to be the second one. I can’t slight myself for things I wrote in the past because that’s what attracted me; that’s what I was obsessed with at the time. But since my parents have both died, I find that my writing is changing enormously. Growing up, my folks were always telling me to be less sensitive and vulnerable, and now that they’re both gone, I find myself being much more sensitive and vulnerable and depicting things that are much more emotionally engaging and upsetting.
How much of your own voice makes it into your work?
Boy, I love to have a character say something really opinionated or really sort of soap-boxy because I’d rather have a character say something wrong than just be a bland, completely likable character. A character should risk spouting some kind of polemic. Even if I don’t agree with it. I have a lot more fun when the character is saying something that I find kind of despicable.
If you agreed with everything the character was doing, there would be no reason to stay engaged.
It’s amazing how much we’re drawn to things we already know that make us write about things that we already believe in. That’s kind of the problem with the internet: people are more likely to get fed what they already like and gravitate towards the news they already agree with and are less likely to shown a spectrum of things they do or don’t agree with.
It’s so easy to be comfortable and not have to venture outside your realm of knowledge and that can be pretty detrimental.
Everyone finds their little niche, and that’s where it kind of stops. Unless you’re dating. Dating is another way that you bring people into your life and see more view points, but boy, there’s not a lot of them beyond a certain point.
You’ve been known to say, “Write the book you want to read.” Have you stuck to that?
Oh definitely. The book is kind of a coded diary, and it’s always interesting to go back and look at your old diaries and realize what things you were worried about that never came to fruition and all these fears you had that didn’t amount to anything. When going back into Invisible Monsters, there were parts that made me laugh that I had completely forgotten about and I was shocked that I had written these particular lines.
There’s nothing about the book that isn’t just as interesting and relevant today as when you wrote it.
And I still haven’t seen anybody do a real reverse Cinderella story where the female protagonist especially realizes her access to power could be greater than it is through looks. All of my narratives still show the female character through power, and part of that process is through looking better and taking advantage of her physical attractiveness. Invisible Monsters has been embraced so much by beautiful women and gay men—especially young gay men. I think they recognize that physical attractiveness has a short-term access to power.