WHO would have guessed that a book sharing its name with pornography notorious for supposedly culminating in a woman’s actual on-camera death would turn out to be hysterically funny? Not me, that’s for sure. Though I’ve never read Fight Club (or watched the film), I have seen Annabel Chong’s documentary, World’s Biggest Gangbang, which partially inspired Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel. Chong’s attempt to have sex with 70 men in a single session left her badly damaged and me depressed.
Cassie Wright, the porn star at the heart of Snuff, has grander ambitions – she aims to film herself having sex with 600 men.
Palahniuk occupies an interesting place in literature. I can’t think of another writer whose online presence is known as The Cult, but that’s where you land when you type www.chuckpalahniuk.net into your browser. Technically it’s the official fan-site and not run by the author. Slick and sophisticated, it offers paying members a social-networking service, writing workshops (featuring input from Palahniuk himself), interviews with authors and artists, discussion groups, information about Palahniuk’s tours and, unsurprisingly, opportunities to purchase Chuck-themed merchandise.
If fans are rabidly appreciative, Palahniuk gives the love back in spades. When he tours he brings a range of prizes and, this year, in keeping with his novel’s theme, that means inflatable sex dolls. When I call the author at his home outside Portland, he’s nursing writer’s cramp from signing the lot.
“They’re all blown up, they’re all inscribed and tomorrow they all go in a box to be shipped out, so, knock on wood, they’ll arrive at the event,” he says. “What’s great is afterwards, seeing all these people in the street carrying around sex dolls! It’s like a really trashy Christo art piece.”
Oh dearie me, I giggle, thinking of Edinburgh’s book festival crowd, by tradition more buttoned-up than Fringe-goers. But Palahniuk assures me his audience tends to comprise the sort of people who rarely go to book festivals; he says it’s important that they’re entertained.
Palahniuk’s never been one to shy away from controversy – indeed, he courts it. So what’s his personal stance on pornography?
“Pornography functions as an adult fairytale or adult bedtime story,” says Palahniuk in a soft, almost uninflected voice. “Ultimately it’s comforting, in that there is no tension or drama, you know how it’s going to resolve – over and over and over. There has been a lot of mainstreaming of porn. I thought, why not write fiction about it, a story that’s not about the sex itself?”
Snuff is not remotely sexy and quite often the biology involved is simultaneously gross and grotesque. Yet there’s great humour, not only in the names concocted for the porn movies, but in the laying-on of trivia from Hollywood’s golden era. According to the author, this is ultimately a story about sacrifice and redemption. “There’s a fatalism in a lot of my books, the idea that you’ve got to trade your life for something because you’re going to die regardless of whether or not you make that choice. So my characters always reach the crisis of what are they going to sacrifice their life for, so at least they’ve had some control over their life before they die.”
He laughs. “It’s so Catholic – everything I write is so Catholic! It’s always about someone martyring themselves for the greater good of another group, or another individual … about who can sacrifice and kill themselves in the great-est way.”
Each of us has his or her unique way of gaining power, he explains. “Most of the time in my books, people have one way that they’ve used since they were very young. Say, being very smart or very funny or very attractive. They do that thing to larger and larger degrees to try and get a greater and greater effect, but they actually get a diminishing effect and reach a point when they realise that this way of being no longer works. Then they either transition [sic] to a more varied way of being or they break down completely. It’s all based on Kierkegaard’s idea of living beyond the aesthetic self and eventually making the leap of faith to a truer way of being.
“Personally, I’ve been able to mix it up a little bit – but damn it, I’m not leaving the house unless my hair looks really good. And also the working hard thing – if I don’t have a book out every year then I’m not working hard enough.”
His methodology is interesting, because despite fame and strong sales, everything Palahniuk writes is first submitted to his writers’ workshop. This level of interaction, along with his frequent pub-lic appearances, helps explain his “cult” status.
“I have always answered mail and I’ve always processed my work through a workshop, where I took feedback and revised my work with my peers. I tell people what I’m working on and allow them to contribute anecdotes from their own lives that illustrate the themes that I’m working on.”
Doesn’t that invite the accusation that it’s not really his work? “On one hand, it never does feel like it’s completely mine, which I don’t think is a bad thing. It gives me greater freedom with it. We don’t own stories any more than we own the furniture in our lives. Some day we’ll die and those things will belong to someone else. And on another level I think it would be very hard,” he surprises me by giggling, “for critics to [accuse me of] that, because who does fully invent everything that they write? You’re working from a language you inherited; you’re working from an education and themes and a heritage – everything inherited. At least I’m being honest about it.”
Snuff, like all his novels, is filled to the brim – drowning, he calls it – with detail. From the, ahem, ins and outs of the porn industry (the best way to crowd-manage a gang-bang is to bring the men through in groups, not singly), to unexpected foetal behaviour (“that nasty little thing starts jerking off in the third trimester and never, ever stops”), to the fact that defibrillators set above 450 joules will leave contact burns.
“All that detail has three primary benefits,” he says. “First, it establishes your authority. People realise you’ve done your research, so when you spring the great big plot twist on them, it’s much more believable. Two, they imply the passage of time so you don’t have to use a transitional phrase like, ‘Three weeks later Cynthia found her bicycle had been returned.’ It allows you to cut back and forth between things and imply a greater passage of time without having to overtly state it. Third, it implies state of mind. I don’t want Cassie Wright to say, ‘I didn’t set out to be a porn star, I set out to be a movie star, a real actor.’ Instead I portray her state of mind by portraying what she knows, because what she knows will project what she’s obsessed with, who her heroes are, what her goals were.”
Me, I’m obsessed with knowing whose books line Palahniuk’s shelves. An adherent of Tom Spandauer’s Dangerous Writing school, he often champions the magnificent Amy Hempel and other minimalists, but are there any maximalists he fancies? I don’t suppose he enjoys Henry James?
He laughs. “No, but I really like the Bronts because something like Jane Eyre tends to be a very clean narrative that’s not full of a lot of abstractions of thought, abstract verbs. Shirley Jackson I’ll go to quite a bit, or EB White.” Ah, the man who never wrote a dud sentence in his entire life, I squeal!
“One of my favourite stories is Dusk In These Fierce Pajamas, about a man recovering from malaria and reading fashion magazines. He’s delirious and reading Vanity Fair and Vogue. It’s incredibly funny and absurd. Reading for language as much for story is something I love because, as you read, you get entranced. You get that language into your head, those thought patterns, and it can really sort of settle you for the rest of the day.”
Hmm. I guarantee if you start thinking in the language of Snuff you’re going to ruffle a few feathers, but don’t count that as a deterrent, otherwise you’ll miss out on one of the funniest books of the year.
• Snuff (Jonathan Cape, 11.99) is out now. Palahniuk appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 August, 8pm.
A pinch of Snuff
“In 1944, while she was filming the movie Kismet, Marlene Dietrich bronzed her legs with copper paint. Lead-based copper-colored paint. The lead leached into her skin. Almost poisoned her to death. Ms Wright tells me this while I stir the wax melting in a double boiler.
Ms Wright, she’s shucking off her long-sleeved top, her jeans and panties. Naked, Ms Wright bends to spread a bath towel across the top of her kitchen table. Her two-room apartment, the bar walls busy with nail holes. Not a stick of furniture except a soiled white sofa that folds out to make a bed. Two kitchen chairs bent out of chrome, and a table to match.
The cabinets are empty. Inside her fridge, you’d maybe find some takeout, wrapped in tinfoil from the Greek place on the first floor. Balanced on the tank of her toilet, her last roll of tissue.
Sitting her bare-naked ass on the edge of the kitchen table, Ms Wright says the actor Lucille Ball always refused cosmetic surgery. No facelifts for Lucy. Instead, she grew out the hair at her temples, long thick strands of hair that hung over each ear. Before she made any public appearance, shot any TV or movie work, Lucy would wind those long locks of hair around wooden toothpicks. With a wig cap pulled tight over the crown of her head, Lucy would pull each toothpick up and backward, stretching and lifting the sagging skin of each cheek. Snag the toothpicks into the mesh of the wig cap, then pull on a red bouffant wig to hide the whole mess. Past a certain age, anytime you see Lucille Ball on TV reruns, mugging and bawling for laughs, smiling and looking wonderful for her age, that woman is in agony.
True fact, according to Ms Wright.”