Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, August 31, 2003
“Diary” by Chuck Palahniuk
Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times
Chuck Palahniuk just keeps popping out the books. This is his seventh in as many years. His prose style, rather than sharpening, is becoming increasingly jagged and addled, which may be due to his frantic pace.
Graced with a blurb from Ira Levin (“Rosemary’s Baby”), “Diary” announces Palahniuk’s intent to move into the horror genre, albeit with his own spin. The results are mixed but compelling.
While the book suffers some of the usual shortcomings of genre novels — arch dialogue, contrived plot, thin characterization — it is far more inspired and philosophical than one would expect from even a top-drawer horror novel.
The ostensible story concerns an island community trying to fight off an invasion of tourists. Peter Wilmot, an island-family scion, goes to art school and meets Misty, a “white trash girl” who dreams of a middle-class life. He marries her and brings her back to the island, where she is expected to become a great artist. The survival of the island community apparently depends on her greatness. None of this is particularly clear, but the point is that Misty must be kept prisoner, and kept miserable, so that she can produce great art.
“Poor Misty Kleinman, she told herself, it wasn’t a career as an artist that she wanted. What she really wanted, all along, was the house, the family, the peace.” This, of course, is one of the timeless dilemmas of the artist: the friction of creativity versus the comforts of conformity.
The story is narrated in the form of a diary, and it is unclear who is writing the diary until the very end — a cheap trick — but it is addressed to Peter, who is in a coma after a botched suicide attempt. The writer is clearly bitter, and clearly Palahniuk.
F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that every character in a novel is a variation on the author, disguised to various degrees. Palahniuk barely bothers with the masks anymore. “Everything is a self portrait,” he acknowledges. “Everything is a diary.”
What this book is truly about is art, the artist and suffering. “This was Peter’s theory of self-expression. The paradox of being a professional artist. How we spend our lives trying to express ourselves well, but we have nothing to tell. We want creativity to be a system of cause and effect. Results. Marketable product. We want dedication and discipline to equal recognition and reward. We get on our art school treadmill, our graduate program for a masters in fine arts, and practice, practice, practice. With all our excellent skills, we have nothing special to document. According to Peter, nothing pisses us off more than when some strung-out drug addict, a lazy bum, or a slobbering pervert creates a masterpiece. As if by accident.”
What makes one a real artist Palahniuk is less sure about, but he is obsessed with their suffering. “Mozart and his uremia. Paul Klee and the scleroderma that shrank his joints and muscles to death. Frida Kahlo and the spina bifida that covered her legs with bleeding sores. Lord Byron and his club foot. The Brontë sisters and their tuberculosis. Mark Rothko and his suicide. Flannery O’Connor and her lupus. Inspiration needs disease, injury, madness.”
Let the good times roll.
No wonder Palahniuk keeps frantically producing his books. He’s probably afraid that if he stopped he would decide to do something else with his life, and that would be a shame.