Friday 30 September 2016

Palahniuk's short stories can't be unread

Fiction: Make Something Up, Chuck Palahniuk, Penguin/Random, pbk, 336 pages, €25.50

Tanya Sweeny

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Brad Pitt In Fight Club
Brad Pitt In Fight Club
Make Something Up

Fight Club, Choke, Snuff, Romance - Chuck Palahniuk's writing has not just been delicious to savour on the palate: it makes for supremely good cinematic fodder, too. Few authors have quite the same minimalist turn of phrase that packs a disturbing and visceral punch.

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His tales of grim sex and violence have become cultish, garnering him comparisons to the equally polarising Bret Easton Ellis. He is not without devilish mischief, either: with his short story Guts, a tale of masturbation gone awry, he implored those present at readings to inhale as the story should last as long as one can hold a breath (this resulted in reported reader faintings across the US).

Last year's novel Beautiful You was an even more impressive, absurdist delve into the damaged male psyche than ever before. As usual, there was an audaciousness in the book's theme; Palahniuk's protagonist, Penny, finds herself unwittingly being used as a test subject for a line of sex toys invented by Linus Maxwell (the release of the toy results in the vanishing of millions of women, who only venture out of their locked bedrooms for batteries). Long story short, Palahniuk still boasts plenty of vim and verve two decades into his writing career.

Bearing the sub-head 'Stories You Can't Unread', Palahniuk's latest offering is a collection of 21 short stories and a novella. Usually, this sort of collection smacks of a clog in a writer's creative well - a publisher's attempt to keep the home fires burning while an author retraces his mojo - but rest assured, in Palahniuk's case, this is far from the truth.

Palahniuk is in sublime, caustic form; his story subjects even more wickedly bold. Teenagers get their kicks from getting electric shocks from cardiac defibrillators; a massage therapist tries a novel way to help out dying clients; a woman offering cheese samples at supermarkets has a tough sell ahead of her as she tries to offload a salmonella product.

Making up Palahniuk's rogue gallery is a fat cat at the heart of a bizarre insurance scam, a quiz show contestant on acid, and a man teaching his son about the facts of life.

Elsewhere, Palahniuk fans will find much to love, not least because an incarnation of Fight Club's Tyler Durden shows up. These are stories that, much as the title promises, will sit in your bones for days.

There are, of course, some duds among the 21, yet it's a book with more than a few standout moments inside.

What is really curious about Palahniuk's writing is that, for all its bizarre and gross-out value, his sparse writing often makes it feel as though he is never panning for shocks. It leads to twists and surprises, page after page.

"We're basically big animals, evolved to break open shells and eat raw oysters, but now we're expected to keep track of all three hundred Kardashian sisters and eight hundred Baldwin brothers," he writes in 'Zombies'. "Seriously, at the rate they reproduce the Kardashians and the Baldwins are going to wipe out all other species of humans."

Palahniuk hasn't yet tired of tossing a perfectly-aimed potshot at the American dream, and it's not likely he ever will.

On that front, don't hold your breath. Literally.

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