Chuck Palahniuk writes stories that fearlessly expose the darkest parts of the human experience. So why is it that when it comes to his sexuality there are still some things he likes to keep hidden?
By Austin Bunn
The Advocate, May 2008
"THIS IS WHERE THE STILLBORN BABIES and dead children go," whispers Chuck Palahniuk. We're in the children's tower, a five-story shaft in the massive Portland Memorial Mausoleum, one of Palahniuk's favorite landmarks in Oregon's largest city. Under the glow of a distant skylight, a cherubic fountain tinkles away in the center of the room, ringed by pink marble nameplates that stack impressively, tragically, out of view. In cubbies, on small shelves, parents have left flowers and windup toys. Members of the city's Cacophony Society-a group dedicated to what Palahniuk, a former participant, describes as "experiential potlucks"--once visited the tower and, he says with characteristic delight, "wound up all the toys and released them at the same time."
Spend enough time with Palahniuk and you come to expect these kinds of statements, this delivery: genuine wonder mixed with a wicked black sense of humor. We wander the corridors of the cavernous mausoleum, surrounded by countless shelves, and Palahniuk pauses in front of an open vault shrouded by a curtain. "They say the worst sound in the world is when they take a casket out of its berth and, as it tips, the entire liquefied contents rush to the lower end. Just bones and formaldehyde." He tests a doorknob at random-he tests all the doorknobs-and when one turns, he strides into an empty, unlit storage room. "Sometimes this is where they hold the indigent bodies," he says. "They put them in plastic-lined cardboard boxes, and you'll go in and all the boxes will be collapsed onto each other."
The gigantic, maze-like mausoleum ("popular for suicides," attests Palahniuk) served as a key setting for his book Survivor, and he used to write here, in one of the many empty sanctuaries or one of the dank-looking armchairs that are scattered around. "I would just find a big one, one that didn't stink so much," he says with a shrug. "They've had water problems for years." Fifteen years ago Palahniuk even brought his partner here on their first date. The Cacophony Society had staged a scavenger hunt inside the mausoleum and he, along with a hundred others, came dressed in mourning black, carrying calla lilies. "We just got lost, absorbed into the building. You couldn't hear another person at all," he says. And his partner? "Oh, he hated it."
This tour of the mausoleum is the first interview Palahniuk has ever granted to the gay press; his sexuality has previously been either largely unknown or the subject of endless rumor. But I sense no apprehension during our time together. A former machinist, Palahniuk moves with athletic purpose, as if we need to be somewhere. He's thin and thoughtful, drives a red pickup truck, and wears a black T-shirt that reads DISAPPOINTED in Disney font. Praise comes easy to him-praise for other authors, for his mentor and writing teacher Tom Spanbauer, for people with obsessions and passions. And with his company comes a strange--though, as I would learn, not absolute-sense of permission, as though no subject matter were out of bounds: the utility of carrots as dildos or the artifacts found on the floors of sex clubs. "I feel a comfort and absurdity and freedom that comes in the face of life," he says. "No mistake will last forever-all those bad or good choices you made, you'll still end up here."
A bright nihilism pervades Palahniuk's risky, propulsive novels-including Fight Club, Choke (which has been made into a feature film due out August 1), and his latest, Snuff, about the making of the world's biggest gangbang. But for all their excessive situations and willful transgressions, these whiplash entertainments capture a poignant (if extreme and predominantly male) search for new forms of social interaction. "All my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people," Palahniuk writes in Stranger Than Fiction, his collection of nonfiction. "People want to see new ways of connecting. See How to Make an American Quilt or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Of course, they are all women's stories. We don't see a lot of models for male social interaction. There's sports and barn raisings. And now fight clubs," a phenomenon Palahniuk invented and one that persists.
After our mausoleum tour, Palahniuk admits that our trip itself was a pretext, a protective device. (Palahniuk declined to be interviewed at his home, and we agreed not to mention the name of his partner in the article.) It becomes clear this search for fresh structures for male contact is very real to him. He says he experiences a deep anxiety trying to relate to people without some activity to bring them together. "In my family we can't just sit and be together," he says. "We have to be shelling peas or husking corn or something. A larger task. Some way of being with people. I'm not good at it." He and his partner live in a former church compound outside Vancouver, Wash., with no neighbors for a mile and a half in any direction. "That's why we love it."
PALAHNIUK'S UNEASE and isolation seems a natural response to his background, which was inflected with the same ruptures and psychological violence that he writes about. Born in 1962, he grew up in the desert of eastern Washington State. At 18, he learned the truth about his grandparents' deaths: His grandfather shot his wife and then came after his son, Palahniuk's father, who was then 4 years old. "My dad's first memories are of hiding under a bed, hearing his father call and seeing his heavy boots walk past, the smoking barrel of the gun hanging near the floor," writes Palahniuk in "Consolation Prizes" from Stranger Than Fiction. While Chuck's father hid, his grandfather eventually shot himself. For years, Palahniuk's family vacationed in that same house in Idaho.
In one of Palahniuk's own childhood memories, he slipped a washer around his finger and couldn't get it off. When his finger was swollen and purple, he went to his father, who said they'd just have to cut the finger off and spent the afternoon sharpening his ax. "There was no drama, no tears, no panic," he writes. "In my 4-year-old mind, my father was doing me a favor." Palahniuk knelt beside the chopping block, where he'd seen chickens beheaded on the family farm, and laid his hand out. "If anything, I was wildly grateful to my father's help," he continues. "I had never told it to anyone…because I knew people wouldn't understand the lesson. All they'd see would be my father's actions and label it cruelty." His father swung-and purposely missed. These are Palahniuk family origin stories, where the double braid of intimacy and violence winds so tight they are, like his novels, inseparable-and perhaps inescapable.
In 1999, Palahniuk's father, long divorced from his mother, was murdered, shot by the ex-husband of a woman he was dating. Driving home from his father's funeral, Palahniuk tells the story of pulling over to the side of the road and considering lying facedown on the pavement until the police or EMTs arrived, because then they would have to physically hold him. Ultimately, he decided not to and instead wrote a book about it--Choke.
Ironically, Palahniuk, by most accounts, is very good at being with people-as long as it is a lot of people. His readings, what he deems "events," draw capacity crowds. He recounts with relish the dozens of people who have fainted at his performances of "Guts," a short story from his collection Haunted that involves masturbation, a pool intake vent, and a prolapsed colon. "It's great when that happens," he says. "There's death, resurrection, and then afterwards people experience euphoria." A friend of mine recalls standing in line for a reading and Palahniuk snuck in behind, eavesdropped, then said in his ear, "Have you ever had a prostitute hold your tongue and jab you in the chest with a knife?" ("It was sick!" my friend said with a smile, clearly having gotten what he came for.) For the upcoming Snuff book tour, Palahniuk has signed over 1,000 blowup sex dolls that he will toss into the audience "to give people a chance to scream and yell and hyperventilate blowing them up."
Snuff is about nothing but people--600 of them. Porn star Cassie Wright wants to break the world record for "serial fornication" in a film called World Whore Three, but Palahniuk has cunningly placed her (and the sex itself) primarily offstage. The book is essentially the stories of three men waiting their turn. Mr. 72, a young Midwesterner who carries a bouquet of wilting flowers, believes he is Cassie's long-lost son. Mr. 600 is an aging porn star who brought Cassie into the business but is so far gone he can't even recognize himself on the closed-circuit televisions playing Cassie's hits. Mr. 137, the most complicated of the three, is a gay television star who participated in his own all-male gang bang, and the revelation ended his career. By popping Viagra, he's hoping to burnish his reputation--and recast his orientation--especially since he thinks Cassie will die while making the film.
GIVEN SNUFF'S RAUNCHY SETUP, the novel reads more like theater than hardcore, unfolding through monologues threaded with tragic backstory. Not surprisingly, Snuff started out as a play, but "it was terrible," Palahniuk says, so he reworked it as a novel. (Palahniuk writes fast: The first draft of Fight Club took him six weeks, as did his forthcoming novel Pygmy. He wrote Snuff in eight weeks.)
Palahniuk does an enormous amount of research for his books, and for Snuff's source material he turned to Grace Quek (a.k.a. Annabel Chong) and her own "sextravaganza," in which she, at age 22, engaged in 251 sex acts with 70 men over a period of 10 hours, captured in the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story. Quek, then a gender studies graduate student at the University of Southern California, had been a victim of a gang rape as a young woman; she said she wanted to "take on the idea of the stud." Palahniuk loved the ambiguity of her experience, hovering between empowerment and annihilation. "Was she exorcising her demons, or was she just being used?" he asks. "Derrida says that the undetermined, undecided thing carries enormous energy. So if I write and refuse to take a moral stand about Cassie and spoon-feed people, it's much more dynamic. Readers need to seek out the company of other people to discuss the themes." (Incidentally, Quek was never paid for the video, though she claims in the documentary that she "didn't want the money.")
To develop his themes, Palahniuk also conducts experiments in what he calls "crowd-seeding': At parties he tells people what he's working on and freely hands out his phone number to generate ideas. For Snuff, he says, "I had all these people calling night and day, offering porn titles, or hairdressers saying, 'Did you know Lucille Ball did this thing with wooden toothpicks…?'" All of his books are packed with this group expertise "so that you feel like you're learning," he says. It's the Google-era technique of novel writing: social composition. "I'm simultaneously testing my material or premise with people and tweaking it," he says. "Plus, it's a fun game and gives people a role to play."
THE FACT THAT HIS BOOKS assemble such bizarre and obscure facts helps account for the strong appeal Palahniuk has to young straight men. Every fall, when I ask my college students what books they have read, if the boys have read anything, they've read Palahniuk. The appeal, they say, is that the books are restless, funny, and physical, as if they are impatient with being books. But it's also that they are oddly informative. "True facts" about the Vatican's drawer of penises, the origins of the vibrator, and the legalese of gang bangs filter throughout Snuff. "It's a guy thing," says Palahniuk. "Men want to make the best use of time and want to see how something can inform them and give them a stronger sense of power."
Of course, these same male students are surprised to learn that Palahniuk is gay, and Palahniuk enjoys their surprise. "It's nice, I like that," he says. "It's a more accepted part of people's lives now." As an author known for exploring the terrain of straight male camaraderie (Fight Club), demolition crews (Rant), and now sexual conquest (Snuff), he willfully ducks the "gay writer" moniker. "I know people who have spun their nationality or their sexuality or their race, but after a few books it's really limiting and their readership doesn't want them to write about anything other than that experience," he says. "They find themselves pigeonholed, documenting the same small aspect of self over and over." He has not avoided queer subject matter, though--Invisible Monsters features a pre-op transsexual, and Fugitives and Refugees, a travel book he wrote about Portland, highlights several gay sex clubs.
At the same time, Palahniuk's tricky relationship with the public consciousness of his sexuality has been the subject of controversy, stemming largely from a 1999 newspaper profile in which he claimed to have a "wife" and "was not planning on having kids." Palahniuk, who says he has been out "for a million years," claims this was an inference that the reporter made and is "just one of those battles you chose to fight or not to fight. I saw it in print and thought, Oh, well, what the hell." In 2003, Entertainment Weekly writer Karen Valby, who declined to be interviewed for this story, planned to run a feature on Palahniuk that would discuss his orientation and relationship. Valby called to clear this with Palahniuk, and he exploded at her; later, on tour at the time and "under pressure," he made an incendiary phone-in post to his biog. "[They] said they didn't have a story unless they could talk about me and my partner and describe our lives together, and it was just so reductive," he tells me. "Of all the things we'd talked about, now it boiled down to, Where do you put your dick? I felt so pissed that I couldn't be a human being, that the only thing interesting about me was this one aspect of my persona."
In the post he revealed personal information Valby had told him about herself during their interview, saying, "The knife cuts both ways." When loyal fans heard his "emotional lashing back," someone phoned in bomb threats to the Time Warner building. The EW article eventually ran without the personal information, and Palahniuk removed the post from his blog.
To this day his official author website, run independently, features a Q&A with Palahniuk that asks, "Is he married?" His answer, "No, but he has been in a long-term committed relationship for over a decade," is certainly true but oddly discreet for a writer known for his irreverence and lacerating honesty. Palahniuk doesn't remember being interviewed for the Q&A and offers, "Maybe it was their choice to protect my privacy."
Palahniuk says a fog of rumors follows him-that he's married to a former Miss Oregon, that he lives in a castle on the coast, that he's a Scientologist (he's not)--and he says he has little interest in policing them. "Rather than spinning who I am, I'm more worried about what is going to be the next book." He calls this "submerging the I," after the fiction writing principle of avoiding the overuse of the first person. But you get the sense that Palahniuk doesn't mind the rumors either, since they reflect his charged, indeterminate reputation; irrelevant writers don't become the subject of rumors.
The day after Palahniuk and I spoke by phone, for a follow-up interview, I contacted the site webmaster to figure out who crafted his answer to the Q&A. Hours later, Palahniuk pulled out of the Advocate photo shoot and called to say he was no longer cooperating with this article. My line of questioning had somehow triggered his sense of betrayal, but I was baffled and shocked. That morning, before the wave of panicked phone calls, I had received a package from him, crammed with two books we had discussed, a Whitman's candy sampler, gag gifts, and a fake severed finger. Oh, and heaps of confetti. ("He really is gay," said a friend.) Alongside, he'd written a touching letter. "Please find joy in everything you do," he wrote. "I'll shut up now." Palahniuk often sends packages like this to his fans, but after years of working as a journalist--and Palahniuk is one himself--I've never received such a gift, and I mention this not to reveal his contradictions or strategies of coercion.
Palahniuk says he is "the animal that eats its own young," because he says he could not care less about Fight Club or any of his novels that have already been published. But he clearly does care, and deeply, about the perimeter of his privacy and the ability to turn off the lights when he wants to. Palahniuk thinks a lot about the "liminal"--those threshold states of transition, the "experiences between things," he calls them. Like the Cacophony Society releasing windup toys in a silent crypt just to hear them whir. Or 600 men waiting to make their smear on history. Or a boy waiting for the ax to be sharp enough. Palahniuk is not in the closet. The whole question misses the point. But a part of him seems to recognize the utility of shadows, the function of mystery. He does not want to be known. At one point in our conversation Palahniuk asked, only half rhetorically, "How do you trick people into loving you? Are you smart? Are you funny?" This is a genuine question for him, as if connection were a series of traps. So he stays a moving target, cultivating transition and keeping slightly out of view. And if that disappoints his readers, "What are they going to do, jump to Alice Sebold at this point? To Amy Tan?" Palahniuk says to me. "God bless them. At this point they are reading my books because they like them, not because they like me."