Thursday, August 26, 2004

Writing Lessons

Diary, by Chuck Palahniuk, Read by Martha Plimpton, Random House, Inc., 2003

When you write a book that purports to be someone’s diary, you assume certain narrative responsibilities. You have to write it as if it really, really were a diary. I can’t state that enough, but I’ll say it one more time for emphasis. You have to write it as if it really, really were a diary.

Whizbang author Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Diary, which claims to be a coma diary, that is a diary written by a woman whose husband is in a coma, ignores this fundamental rule so blatantly I’m sure he doesn’t understand this. He doesn’t know this rule and isn’t ignoring it, deliberately flouting it for subtle artistic reasons. That would be acceptable. He’s just a bad novelist and he covers it up with sensationalist material.

Generally on the whole, I find him an overblown one-trick pony whose personal fame clock hit fifteen minutes after they turned his debut novel, Fight Club, into a movie starring heartthrob Brad Pitt.

Which is a shame, because Palahniuk has the makings of a decent writer. Let me dispense some advice to Mr. Palahniuk that he’ll never read and if by an unimaginably unlikely series of events he did read, he’d ignore. After all, he’s rich and famous, and I’m just an anonymous critic, a eunuch in a harem bleating on about good thrusting technique.

First piece of advice: When writing a “diary” you have to work as though the book really were one. The trick here is successfully shoehorning in the stuff that a reader would need to know. Almost no effort is made in this direction; Palahniuk just shovels in the info without regard for this nicety. I've kept a diary for going on ten years and never in all that time have I used my first and last name (or even my first come to think of it). Nor have I talked much about other people, friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers-in-law, using their full names. Nor have I talked about myself in the third person. It makes you wonder what the point of writing the book as a diary is.

The difficulty that Palahniuk runs into with this narration style is that sentences read like this: "You did that; Peter picked it up." Both independent clauses are about the same action done by the same person. Misty alternates between addressing Peter in second person and discussing him in third person. It feels sloppy and doesn't provide any actual artistic quality. "You told Misty all of this," she writes, narrating in second person to her husband and referring to herself in the third person. What's the point? It reads sloppily and if he’s trying to convey a confused mental process, it’s not a very effective fashion of doing so.

Second piece of advice: develop an interest in the everyday. Really, how many novels about schizoid over-the-edge types who live lives filled with extreme bizarreness can you write? How many books will you pen that end with semi-apocalyptic disasters that stick it to the corporate man? Both Fight Club and Diary follow idiosyncratic freakshows to dramatic and unlikely explosive endings. If you read Palahniuk’s other books’ synopses a similar tone is struck.

Choke is about a guy who pretends to choke in restaurants to score free meals and support checks who, in his spare time, cruises for some action at sex addiction recovery workshops. Invisible Monsters is about a model who is so disfigured in an accident she becomes “invisible” to people. Survivor tells of the last member of a death cult about to crash an airplane. Lullaby is about a man who discovers a song that kills people and his unintentional development as a serial killer.

And Diary is about a woman who finds out her husband’s island community lures a talented female artist every hundred years to their island so they can steal all her art, kill all the tourists who vacation on the island, and reap untold riches from insurance and art monies.

Needless to say, a little Palahniuk goes a long, long, looooooong way.

Third piece of advice: write short stories. Diary could be distilled down to a really decent short story or novella. His other books are also “trick idea” books. By “trick idea” what I mean is one clever notion, inflated, embroidered, footnoted, repeated, and stretched out for a good two hundred plus pages. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” did for the notion of women trapped in a society’s predetermined roles in twenty pages what Diary does in more than ten times that amount. And Gilman’s tale packs about a thousand times the wallop.

If Palahniuk focused his energies on paring down, whittling his novels’ bombast into well-crafted stories with the same themes, he could easily score himself a place in literary history a la Flannery O’Connor. Instead, he’ll continue putting out overhyped books that boast his hyperactive prose is “edgy” and “confrontational” and “groundbreaking” and all such misplaced modifiers. The whole “out there” style comes off as a pose.

Fourth piece of advice: drop repetitive jokes after no more than fives uses. Diary attempts to develop the narrator of Misty Kleinman Wilmot through her slowly dawning realization of what’s going on around her and rides so many gag-horses to death in the process. When discussing her life, Misty uses a drinking game analogy. “Every time a customer asks for a table by the fire, then complains that they’re too hot and asks to be moved, take a drink.” This “take a drink” section encompasses a good fifteen minutes of reading and is tedious after the first two.

At the book's beginning, Misty discusses the various muscles, tissues, and fat in a person's face and it goes on and on. Because Misty is an artist, don't you know, when people make facial expressions she tells us what muscles in their face do what, as though being an artist meant having an encyclopedic, medical knowledge of anatomy--and little else.

There is a recurring “joke” where Misty gives us the day's emotional weather report: "Today's weather is jealous, with a chance of great anger." This old hackneyed device was worn smooth by Tom Waits back in his lounge singer days of Nighthawks at the Diner. Misty also introduces various small elements and twists and observations with the phrase "just for the record." In twenty minutes, I heard the phrase four times. On very special occasions, Misty writes "Just for the record, the weather forecast for today" so we get a twofer. "What they don't teach you in art school...." is another phrase she plies with a desperate overuse.

What’s saddest about all this bad writing is that it obscures how good Palahniuk can be. He’s got a knack for the poetic phrase, for the sociological skewer, and for the evocation of loss, but he buries it under hipster trickery, pseudo-intellectual philosophical bull, and vaguely supernatural cop-outs. I mean, just listen to how delightfully beautiful this little snippet is:

He's not smiling now, but the wrinkles that crease his cheeks and his crowsfeet prove he smiles a lot. He smiles more than he frowns. The scars of happiness.

The scars of happiness. That’s just breathtaking when you read it. The phrase has the force of truth; it pushes you to view laugh lines and other such marks in an almost painfully new way. It demonstrates how everything leaves its mark in us. I left Diary wanting more of that and less of everything listed above.

The book is read by the actress Martha Plimpton, and she is a decent enough reader. Her acting style has always struck me as restrained anger, as though she has been swallowing fury for so long that she's got a teeth clenched voice. As Misty is filled with rage, this makes her a good choice. Her rendition of men is either just weak or is supposed to convey Misty’s bad opinions of men as a gender. Plimpton reads male characters in low, caveman grunts. The longer passages are a bit flat in the reading, but when Palahniuk’s writing throws off the baggage he tries to force on it, Plimpton gives it a voice that really sings.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do not know how I ended up here, but I reckon this article on thrifty
car rental maui hawaii airport is great. I do not know about what you do but without any doubt you're will be a well-known blogger if you aren't already
;) All the best!

Here is my website: