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TFW Book Club: Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

I’d always been interested in reading a Chuck Palahniuk novel.  His books are very popular amongst many of my friends, he has a reputation for subversive writing and is the author of Fight Club, which translated into an excellent film.  So a friend lent me a copy of Survivor.  I finished reading it last night.

Survivor tells the story of a man, Tender Branson, who belongs to a religious cult called the Creedish Church.  He opens the narration having just hijacked a plane with the intention of crashing it into the Outback of Australia.  He documents his life story to the plane’s black box.

Tender explains that many years ago, the Creedish Church elders instructed their followers to commit suicide, an act known as ‘deliverance’, so that they may ascend to Heaven.  It takes a number of years for the Creedish to dwindle down in population as their suicide rate is slowed by government interference.  Social workers try to rehabilitate the few remaining Creedish followers by giving them new lives, jobs and counseling.  They are spectacularly unsuccessful however as one by one, the Creedish continue to die.  Eventually, Tender is identified by the media as the sole surviving member of this cult and becomes a celebrity.

Palahniuk’s writing style is very easy to read.  The story is chopped up into very short chapters and he frequently indulges in single sentence paragraphs and repetition of themes such as Tender’s housekeeping advice and Biblical verses.  The story is told at a blistering pace, as if in fast forward.  Tender becomes an overnight media sensation, then overexposed, then popular once again, then appears at the Superbowl, then is in a high speed car accident, all the in the matter of around thirty pages.

It also becomes apparent that Palahniuk is more interested in skewering media culture and consumerism over developing his characters or telling a coherent story.

Tender Branson, the central character, has no character.  His narration serves only to explain his religious commandments or as a literal play-by-play of what he is doing.  Tender’s unfeeling and dry dialogue can be explained contextually by his regimented upbringing but there is no emotive foil for the reader to connect to.  Instead, Tender’s counterpart is Fertility, a woman who is clairevoyant and exists more as a convenience to move the story along.  Aside from her ability to see into the future, little else of her personality is explored.

Survivor tries very hard to be edgy and push boundaries.  Lines of dialogue about God are interspersed with talk of sex or killing.  Yet I found that Palahniuk’s lack of restraint and his tissue-thin characterisation made me quickly burn out on his style.

A single extraordinary incident or coincidence in a story can be quite affecting.  When there is one every other page, it feels like lazy writing and loses its shock value.  Off the top of my head, Survivor has the following moments:  Tender is suicidal and then a newspaper misprints his phone number as a suicide helpline.  Fertility is a surrogate mother but is barren.  Tender becomes the face of trashy religious consumerism and then his brother is killed after getting impaled by an toy figurine of Tender in a rubbish tip filled with pornography.  And so on, and so on.

All of this would probably would have worked if I resonated more with Palahniuk’s message.  He spends several chapters on how Branson changes his image for TV, uses a ghostwriter for his books and relies on his agent to tell him what to do.  JUST LOOK AT HOW FAKE IT ALL IS!  I don’t think “The only difference between suicide and martyrdom is press coverage” is nearly as profound as Palahniuk thinks and poking fun at the artificial and hollow nature of show business is a pretty well-worn and tired subject matter, not any sort of meaningful revelation.

I remember reading American Psycho when I was eighteen and thought it was amazing.  Maybe I’m simply getting a case of diminishing returns because this is basically the same thing.  I really wanted to like this book but it just didn’t do it for me.

About Edo

Edo currently lives in Australia where he spends his time playing video games and enjoying his wife's cooking.

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