I’m a huge Palahniuk fan, but I, strangely enough, have not read his every novel. Survivor is one I skipped, so I’m reading it now. Here is my review:
All my reviews have spoilers.
Survivor is told in present tense, first person. It starts out fast with a main character that has a very personable, non-formal way of speaking. Typical Palahniuk.
I’ve read many of Palahniuk’s craft essays, his essays on writing, so it’s interesting to see what he’s doing in action. In his essays he mentions things like starting a story either from the heart or from the head. If you start it from the heart, you need to pull on your reader’s emotional strings. If you start it from the head, you need to build authority by throwing out facts. By throwing in complex facts, you make the hard to swallow parts of your fictional tale seem more believable. This story, I’d say, is started from a head standpoint because our main character throws out lots of plane facts and details that he learned from the pilot.
In Palahniuk’s essays he talks about hiding guns. Survivor has a clear hidden gun. The main character only has a few hours to tell his story before the plane crashes. So the gun is the plane crashing. This technique limits the length of the story, framing it, and making sure the story reaches it’s crisis before it’s too long. We know we only have a little bit of time to hear this man’s story, and his story will tell us why he wants to die a fiery death in the first place.
Things are odd in that chapter one is actually chapter forty-seven and what should be page one is page 289. I’m sure this will make sense by the end, but as usual when I read a Palahniuk book, I am currently confused. Chapter two is chapter forty-six so … we’re going backwards? Page numbers are descending. Yeah, we’re going backwards. Never a dull moment with a Palahniuk book!
Update: I now see we’re counting down to the plane crash. The story the main character is telling is going forward, though, from the beginning to the end, but the chapters are going backward. It’s a countdown to the plane crash and to the end of his story.
Okay, I’m a few chapters in, and it’s getting a little dull. Palahniuk likes to throw in “info dumps” (what he calls info dumps anyway), which are little interesting factoids to keep variety and authority. I just read an entire chapter that gave cleaning tips and tips on the correct way to eat various foods like lobster.
Honestly, this reminds me of another book he wrote, Snuff, probably my least favorite Palahniuk book, where one of the characters gave tons of little tips here and there. All these tips could easily be looked up on Google. If you want to find out how to best get a blood stain out of a piano key, Google it. You want to know how to drink ice tea the right way, Google it. It’s not terribly interesting and it has nothing to do with the story at large, so I am a little bored with it all. Hopefully, this story will pick up.
Other fact dumps throughout the books: Various ways to shoplift. Various psychological diagnoses. Cooking tips (“The secret for making perfect boeuf Bourguignon is to add some orange peel.” What? You don’t care? Neither do I.)
These lists seem a little obsessive.
Textures and Choruses
Textures. Info Dumps. Choruses. They’re all techniques Palahniuk uses. He’s probably the ultimate master of them, and they’re all in this book.
To explain, textures is using a different type of storytelling within your storytelling to vary the texture and keep the reader’s attention. For example, throwing a recipe into a story would be a different texture. The instructions on a mattress tag would be a different texture. By throwing something like that in, you’ve kept your reader’s attention and borrowed from something in the real world, adding authority to your story.
So in Survivor, Palahniuk uses many textures such as bathroom graffiti (which were hilarious) and bible excerpts (which were not).
Choruses are repetitions just meant to break up the scene similar to how beats break up dialogue. They’re more or less just an area for the reader to breathe. Example on page 9 – when the main character is about to hijack the plane, the scene is frequently interrupted by the gate people telling us who’s to board next.
People holding tickets for rows thirty through forty-nine, please board now.
A little later:
People holding tickets for rows ten through twenty-nine, please board now.
People holding tickets for rows one through nine, please board now.
So Palahniuk repeats certain lines throughout scenes and these are choruses. Some of his textures seem to also be choruses seem to also be info dumps. It’s hard to separate out – well this is that and that is this – but it’s all classic Palahniuk, I can tell you that much. This is one of Palahniuk’s earlier books so it’s understandable that of course I’d find all these elements in it. It’s typical him, but to be honest I’m kind of over it. All the little tips here and there become tedious after a while. They don’t add much real value to the plot or story.
I feel like he over did it with the textures and info dumps in this particular book. He should have pulled back a little on the tricks and added more story meat.
I ended up feeling very disconnected from the characters.
Chuck’s very good about not saying directly how characters feel which is supposed to be a good way to go about writing. A lot of new writer’s spoon feed their character’s emotions to the readers. “He was sad because …” “This made her feel …” The result is that the reader doesn’t get to come to his own conclusions. It’s too much telling. I’d rather you show me his emotion through his physical reactions like tears or verbal reactions like yelling or .. you get the point.
Palahniuk absolutely shows emotions instead of telling them, but there’s still something of a disconnect. I still don’t feel much for his characters. I feel it physically when bad things happen to his characters, like a knife to the gut, but I don’t feel any strong emotional connection to the characters. My desire to see them succeed is very shallow.
To be honest, I’ve never felt that connected to a Palahniuk character, and I read once in an interview long ago that Palahniuk doesn’t get too connected to his characters either. Maybe that’s the problem. They’re just there to tell a story, to have bad or shocking things happen to them, but you’re never meant to fall in love with them. They’re all a little too objective about their own experiences.
I don’t think this is because Chuck shows instead of telling emotions. I wouldn’t think that would be a problem since it’s typically the other way around that’s problematic. Maybe it’s because he’s so clever with how he shows characters thoughts through actions, that the reader is left marveling at the cleverness of it instead of actually feeling the emotions and thoughts for themselves.
Or maybe it’s because few of his characters are likable. Most of them seem jaded, some outright mean, and the few loving qualities they might possess are kind of overshadowed by their dark worlds and the dark actions they take.
I don’t know. I really don’t have an answer as to why I don’t feel strongly about Palahniuk characters. I just know I don’t. If you have any guesses yourself, please comment below. I’d love to hear other’s opinions.
Weird quotes have a far away effect:
“You know, the horizontal bop. Hide the salami. The hot thing. The big O. Getting lucky. Going all the way. Hitting a home run. Scoring big-time. Laying pipe. Plowing a field. Stuffing the muff. Doing the big dirty,” Adam says.
“Quit trying to fix your life. Deal with your one big issue,” Adam says.
“Little brother,” Adam says, “we need to get you laid.”
Those three quotes are all written in successive order like that on the page. So Adam says three things in three paragraphs one right after the other. It has a far away effect. It makes you wonder if these were all said at once or if these were little snippets of a conversation that I’m being fed. If I believe I’m getting a summary of the main things said, instead of an actual real time conversation, that has the effect of making me feel like I’m not in the scene.
I noticed Palahniuk doing something similar to this in other parts of the book as well. For instance, he’d put other characters words in quotes, but our main character, our narrator, would say things without quotes, which also made me wonder if I was getting a summary or a real conversation.
Since this story is meant to be a re-telling of the protagonists life story, I think the far away, summary effect is intentional. Unfortunately, the far away summary effect makes me feel farther away which sort of defeats the purpose of telling a story in first person, doesn’t it?
Writers are frequently given the tip to use as many senses as possible in a scene. This makes the reader feel more engaged. Palahniuk frequently does this but sometimes it’s a little too obvious for my taste. Here’s an example from page 252:
Even with the sun on everything outside, everything inside is still cold to the touch. The light is through stained glass. The smell is rain soaked into the walls made of cement. The feel of everything is polished marble. The sound is somewhere, the drip of old rain sliding along rebar, the drip of rain through the cracked skylights, the drip of rain inside unsold crypts.
Okay, let’s see. Temp. = cold, check. Sight – light through stained glass, check. Smell – rain soaked walls, check. Feel – polished marble, check. Sound – dripping rain, check. We’re got everything but taste here, and good thing because who wants to lick a crypt?
It’s just too much at one time and therefore has less of an effect.
Here’s one I like better on page: 183. He uses sound and feel:
The bells are ringing so loud you feel it, and only Fertility’s cold hand is keeping me here.
That line is more subtle than the above example.
Beats, Unusual Yet Usual
Beats are something of an art if you ask me. All the little physical things people do while they’re talking or thinking, it can be tricky to find the right things to show, but you have to use something or else you’ll end up with floating heads, and you don’t want that.
Palahniuk is a master of beats. He has a way of describing very common things that are easy to visualize but at the same time they’re interesting to read. They also say something about the characters. In the scene on page 247, the caseworker is about to paint her fingernails during a work session:
She starts shaking the little bottle of bright red with a long white top next to her ear. With her other hand, she flips through the forms to find one.
Later in the conversation:
Her hands twist the bottle between them. They twist. They twist until her knuckles look white.
The caseworker is fanning her fresh red nails back and forth in front of her mouth and blowing them dry. Between long exhales, she asks, “Your family?”
Saying It Wrong
This is another Palahniuk trick that he uses throughout the book. He writes things a little bit strangely. It’s a technique to catch readers attention and slow them down. Example p. 187:
She goes loud enough to bring people out from behind their newspapers …
Goes loud? See, it’s a little off and you pay attention, plus he can get away with it since it’s all in first person. He can use the excuse that this is just how our protagonist speaks.
She’s being such an overreaction.
Being an overreaction instead of she’s overreacting. It slows you down. It’s still understandable, but it’s just strange enough to make you pay attention.
Favorite Line in the Book
No, everybody thinks their whole life should be at least as much fun as masturbation.
It’s funny. It’s interesting at points. The idea that someone would start a suicide hotline just to tell people to go kill themselves, things like that, it’s unusual and entertaining, no doubt. His creativity and shocking ideas are one of the main reasons I enjoy Palahniuk stories, so this one delivered in that sense, just like I knew it would.
The ending left me wondering. It was well put together, and it tied into the whole Survivor title. He was the lone Creedish survivor, but did he survive the plane crash?
Not my favorite Palahniuk book. Too many choruses, tidbits, textures – to the point that the story was drowned out. These techniques are supposed to enhance your story, make it more interesting, not suffocate it. Also I felt nothing for the characters.
Palahniuk characters have become a little dull to me. It doesn’t matter if he varies their age, sex, looks, religions, etc., they all seem to have the same jaded detachment about them. It’s entirely possible I’ve read too much Palahniuk, so that now all his characters are like seeing the same famous actress in different movies. If you see the same actress enough, you start to see just that person and not the characters she plays. She can be in a sci-fi and then war drama and then a rom-com, but it’s all that actress. It’s a Julia Roberts movie. It’s a Tina Fey movie. You don’t see the characters anymore. It’s just that actor in a new setting. That’s how Palahniuk characters seem to me, same people, different settings and circumstances. Meh, maybe that comes with the territory of reading stuff by the same author.
Side note: The cover airplane sucked. Did not make a good paper airplane at all. Probably should not have destroyed my book just to see it crash and burn.
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