Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"As She Climbed Across the Table:" Science Dictions

Jonathan Lethem's forays into literary-cum-genre fiction are admirable not only as hints of his eclectic tastes, but as proof that good writing can elevate any plot setting or supposedly "lesser" style (science fiction, mystery, and the like). Gun, With Occasional Music was his debut, and its combination of a futuristic society overrun with anthropomorphic animals and an old-school detective novel worked amazingly well; the two different genres were meant to assimilate, and they did, without being distracting and without taking away from the novel's serious tone and mystery. The Fortress Of Solitude elevated the beaten-horse style of "coming of age fiction", added a dash of mysticism, and still did not feel contrived or unnecessarily outlandish. A better way of saying this: Lethem takes the obvious and makes it unique. Even without being strictly genre-based, the uniqueness of his 1997 novel As She Climbed Across the Table follows the aforementioned patterns. It's science fiction, but in a strictly literal sense: it's fiction, there's a heavy dose science, and the plot revolves around the potential of other worlds. However, these do not add up to an expected result.

At a California university, professors/lovers Philip Engstrand and Alice Coombs are at an impasse. Their relationship is unstable, and takes a serious blow when Alice and her fellow particle physicists create "Lack," a black hole situated in the physics lab. Philip's attempts to win her back are fraught with problems, none greater than the realization (and admission) that Alice has fallen in love with Lack, both as a potential scientific breakthrough and as an organism that, even without having physical qualities, seems to have a defined taste in what it allows to be absorbed. It "eats" various things such as a cat (which leads to a wonderful spoof of a typical campus protest), but repels things such as aluminum foil and a batter's helmet. As Alice falls deeper in love and deeper in delusion, a cast of secondary characters provide the links between the estranged couple. Evan and Garth, two blind men recruited by Alice for their potential ways of "seeing" various particles, eventually move into the apartment at Alice's request; Professor Soft, Alice's mentor, understands her problems and attempts to recruit Philip's help; a team of Italian physicists, led by Braxia, visit the campus to study Lack; and a woman named Cynthia Jalter serves as a potential new love interest for the spurned Philip.

At its heart, As She Climbed Across the Table is a love story. With the surrounding elements stripped away, the interactions between Philip and Alice are saddening, especially since Lethem does an excellent job of evoking the fact that their relationship used to be healthy. They both know it's going downhill, fast, and the dialogue reflects crumbling unions without resorting to cliche or climatic confrontations. They speak honestly, and at times, it's easy for the reader to lose track of the absurdity of the situation, that Alice is falling for nothingness as opposed to a physical lover.

"Don't address me, I wanted to say. Philip isn't here. This is Omnipotent Voice you're speaking with.
'You're in love with someone else,' I heard myself say.
A change came over me, a phase transition. A flush rose through my chest and neck.
'You're in love with Lack,' I said.
Should I have known sooner?
Love is self-deception, remember. And my competition was so improbable.
But now that it was named, Alice's Lack-love seemed obvious, a foregone conclusion. Probably the whole campus buzzed with it, and I was the last to know (Lethem 75)."

Some of the novel's most vibrant passages are the recreations and careful satires of academia and college life. In one chapter opening, Lethem summarizes the passage of time on a university campus, and it manages to be comical and true at the same time.

"Days passed. Classes were taught, seminars held. Papers were handed in, graded, and returned. The team won something, and the trees filled with garlands of toilet paper. It rained, and the toilet paper dripped to the pathways, and into the wiper blades of parked cars. A group of students seized the Frank J. Bellhope Memorial Aquarium to protest the treatment of Roberta, the manatee savant. The protest was a failure. I called a symposium on the history of studen seizure of campus buildings. The symposium was a success. In the larger world, the team invaded something, some hapless island or isthmus. A letter of protest by the faculty was drafted, revised, and scrapped. Bins of swollen pumpkins appeared in the produce sections of Fastway and Look 'n' Like (Lethem 25)."

In addition to providing the major rift between Philip and Alice, Lack's presence also offers a lot of scientific and philosophical hypotheses. It's decried as inhumane for enveloping the cat, but it's also a source of potential as a scientific breakthrough. What is the meaning behind its tastes? Does it lead to another world or dimension? The far-fetched nature of having a black hole situated across a table in a science lab is rendered realistically. The existence of Lack isn't meant to be critiqued or viewed through a lens of literal science fiction. Even the most educated physics professors are baffled by its actions. However, Alice isn't the only person mystically drawn to its power. Its seduction is both scientific and paranormal, a specific metaphor for the wildly unspecific mysteries of life.

" I went back to my seat, heart pounding. Lack would take Alice, he said. The worst possible news. At the same time, I was flattered by Lack's cooperation. I had a scoop. Lack was a Ouija board, and I was the medium. I felt possessive. This was the first time Lack had aimed his seductiveness at me directly. I understood Soft, and Braxia, and De Tooth, and even Alice, a little better.
I couldn't understand this enemy. The temptation I felt was proof of his power (Lethem 154-155)."

I haven't done a complete reading of Lethem's bibliography, but As She Climbed Across the Table is the second novel of his that I've read from the 1990s. Unlike Gun, With Occasional Music, this work is both assured as well as an example of a new author venturing out with some trepidation. The chapters are short, 2-3 page increments, and the work as a whole is a very quick, easy read. This isn't to say that Lethem wrote was if he was unsure of his talents, but in my opinion, his early style is one of great care, since he's introducing and exploring a myriad of topics that have the potential to be unbelievable in a negative way. However, As She Climbed Across The Table is also a sign of his early talents, and his love of science fiction is evident. Being able to master a basic love story with a backdrop of fantastical scientific explorations is no small feat. This isn't his best novel, but in a very positive way, it works as a piece that is both a light read as well as an exploration of scientific and metaphysical questions. At the very least, it proves that fun reading doesn't have to insult a reader's intelligence. If one could create a flowchart of his novels, there would be consistent correlations of themes, but also a definite rise in scope as he grows older. Some novelists tend to avoid discussions of their earlier works. With Lethem, his early writings are vibrant foundations for what he currently creates.

Work Cited:
Lethem, Jonathan. As She Climbed Across the Table. Copyright 1997 by Jonathan Lethem.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Circuit Makers: My Morning Jacket

I normally hesitate to use the word "evolution" in regard to music, especially regarding My Morning Jacket; it's an easy stand-by term that tries to say a lot, without saying much of anything. However, their discography has shown signs of (slight) changes, or, more accurately, signs of a desire to branch out without completely distancing themselves from their origins. Their first two albums (The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn) were stunning, soulful records from the Louisville group, not exactly rock, but not exactly alt-country. The culmination was 2005's Z, one of the best records in one of the brightest music years. Their sound, combined with lead singer/songwriter Jim James' echoed vocals, seemed to have everything without being distracting: soul, electronica, and arena rock bombast. While topping that album is next to impossible, 2008's Evil Urges was a step back. There wasn't necessarily a need for them to live up to the previous work, but it was ultimately forgettable.

Recently, My Morning Jacket released Circuital, an album that plays like a scaled-down version of Z, but it takes a few listens to get that effect. The first track, "Victory Dance" is a good mix of hushed ruminations with increasing intensity, going back and forth between sketches of pastoral yearnings and frustrations. Lyrically, it leaves a lot open to interpretation, and I found it satisfying to read it as a sort of examination of the band's growth, especially with the rest of the album's sound as a context:

Should I lift the dirt and plant the seed
even though I've never grown
Should I wet the ground with the sweat from my brow
and believe in my good work?

"Victory Dance" segues into the title track, which begins with a wonderfully funky beat and James' voice used in his classic echoed reverberation. Using the above lyrics with my interpretation, the two opening tracks can represent My Morning Jacket's dichotomy/sound combination in a compelling fashion. The songs aren't separated by any break, yet manage to blend well, even with their differences. At their best, the band can be equally at home with songs that are both soft and more intense. While the opening lyrics hint at a division, it's not a problem that the band alternates the musical styles. Rather, it's a testament to their skills that their early works can be evocative in such a different format.

The middle tracks are strong, highlighted by "Outta My System," a song with an almost classic rock sound that elevates its serious musings on youthful mistakes and adult responsibilities. It's one of the shortest songs on the album, expressing its message quickly before moving on. "Holdin' On To Black Metal" is thematically similar, utilizing a strong chorus of voices, and possibility hinting to James' origins as a punk band singer before the formation of My Morning Jacket. However, towards the end, the song "Slow Slow Tune" goes into a completely different direction, a (yes) slow, beautiful song that is intentionally self-aware. It's almost a grown-up lullaby, and its distinction from the rest of the album works very well; it has the potential to be an unnerving break, but winds its way down to Circuital's end.

Circuital was produced by Tucker Martine, best known for his production work with The Decemberists. I'm not as versed in the behind-the-scenes work that goes into album production, so I cannot assuredly say how Martine's help went into the the final product. However, it's safe to say that he didn't seem to intervene too much. Despite the coincidental thematic similarities between the opening tracks of Circuital and The Decemberists' The King Is Dead, it's interesting to note the differences in styles between his production on the two vastly different albums (from two thematically different musical outfits). In the same general time span, Martine oversaw The Decemberists working a folk album as well as My Morning Jacket creating a new album that blends their usual sounds. Overall, it seems like a good case of My Morning Jacket going with what works.

Even though Evil Urges was a bland follow-up to Z, there was never a sense that the band had lost anything, nor does it feel like Circuital is a way to prove that they're still an extremely talented outfit. It's not their best album, but at the same time, it does highlight their strengths as it moves among the varying styles. I can't imagine them branching out farther into other styles, but perhaps I'm wrong; maybe in the future, they will show even more innovation. For now, Circuital would have been the worthy follow-up to Z, and if they stay in their usual styles, it still leaves a lot of room open for growth. Jim James is too talented of a songwriter and guitarist to have a serious lapse, and this album is a sign of the band's staying power.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Everything Must Go (To Extremes)"

There is no shortage of potential, literal ways to define what the film Everything Must Go is "about." Going with the depicted events, good cases can be made for the theme being a.) the effects of alcoholism, b.) the crumbling of a marriage, or c.) the growth and study of interpersonal relationships. However, much like a good short story (the film is loosely based on Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?", a selection from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), the events provide the journey and the hints of the resolution, but the development ultimately refuses to make any concrete assumptions or tidy explanations. This is not a perfect film, yet it wisely goes about showing the actions while at the same time resisting any moralizing or cheap surprises.

In the span of one day, Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) loses his job in the midst of relapsing into drinking. Upon returning home, he finds every lock on the house changed, a "Dear John" letter from his wife taped to the front door, and all of his possessions scattered on the front lawn. His credit cards and joint bank account are frozen. His immediate solution to all of this is to head to the store to buy some beer, which, his alcoholism aside, isn't so bad, seeing that having all of those happenings piled into span of a few hours would be too much for anybody to process. He encounters a young boy named Kenny who aimlessly rides his bicycle around the street, passing time while his mother cares for a terminally ill woman down the street. A run-in with the police is avoided when Nick calls upon local detective Frank Garcia (an excellent performance by Michael Peña), who happens to be his AA sponsor. Garcia's solution is to have Nick sell his personal items in a yard sale, as a way to clean up the mess and begin sorting his life out. Nick enlists the help of Kenny, and in the process begins conversations with Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a young pregnant wife waiting for her husband to join her in their new house. These secondary characters (including an old high school classmate played by Laura Dern, and a comedic May-December couple next door) provide interactions and realizations for Nick, not in the expected roles of helping him "find himself," but more in the sense of helping him understand his problems and weaknesses. There is a major difference.

Dan Rush is a first-time film director, as well as the writer of the screenplay. His direction is admirable and not overly flashy, focusing on excellent close-up shots of the character's faces, which, aided immensely by the commendable acting, carefully shows the inner problems that plague every character: Nick's nighttime sweating in the depths of withdrawal; Rebecca's unhappiness and unease in her domestic life, which she tries her best to hide; Kenny's isolation from kids his own age. Everything Must Go was shot and set in Arizona, and Rush includes some occasionally grand wide shots of the region's long roads and rural terrain, which somehow blend nicely into the smaller scenes of everyday suburbia. With the occasional exception, there are no dramatic revelations in the film. Therefore, Rush wisely keeps the direction to the minimum, allowing the story to be told without resorting to trick shots or mixed-up story lines.

The screenplay is a source of both the film's strength and its major weaknesses. Adapting a very brief Raymond Carver story is an excellent example of a new filmmaker tapping into a reservoir of terrific material (and I'll now confess that I haven't seen Robert Altman's Shortcuts). I'm still amazed at the wealth of classic short stories and novels that still have not been adapted into films, but that is a different tangent altogether. Carver's stories, including "Why Don't You Dance?", are more often than not minimalist, open-ended expressions that one wouldn't immediately assume could transfer well to film. Rush is able to express Carver's hallmarks--male isolation, alcoholism, and suburban dissatisfaction--while at the same time leaving virtually none of the events or pieces of the story in the film, with the exception of the idea of an impromptu yard sale and the appearance of a record player and vinyls. In the story, the man is left unnamed, and only interacts with a young couple who stumble upon his possessions on the lawn (they play some records, which leads to the story's title question). At the same time, while Rush skillfully evokes Carver's atmospheres, the screenplay has some nagging problems. The piling of a broken marriage, a man falling off the wagon, and the loss of a job all in the span of a single day might not be totally impossible in real life, but seems to be an exaggerated, hasty introduction to Nick's current state. Everything Must Go is a tidy hour-and-a-half film, but would have been better served with some of Nick's woes drawn out more realistically. Later in the film, the audience is shown two concurrent scenes that are blatantly confusing. In one late night scene, Nick is sweating and trembling from alcohol withdrawal, leading to a revealing confrontation with Samantha. The very next night, he's shown looking strong and avoiding another relapse while out to dinner. The inclusion of a brief scene with Delilah (Laura Dern) is well-crafted and marked by terrific acting, but somehow feels out of place, or, more appropriately, tossed in. It avoids some obvious film cliches, yet its very subversion of expectations leads to its being a strange aside in a generally smooth time line. One of Rush's best decisions was to leave Nick's estranged wife out of the picture, literally: she's discussed and hinted at, and plays a major role in one of the film's later conflicts, yet works amazingly well as an unseen character, with her problems with Nick shown in retrospect, rather than in concrete scenes.

Even with these faults, the acting is nearly pitch-perfect, beginning with the wonderful performance by Will Ferrell. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert gives mentions and examples of comedians who have made the turn into respected dramatic acting. The beauty of Ferrell's performance is its understatement, since Nick's mental state would be perfect for over-acting. Ferrell is somber without being melodramatic, and even expresses Nick's withdrawal impressively, opting for a simple, saddening descent, and using his eyes to convey weariness and depression. There are occasional humorous moments in the film, but these are situational, rather than slapstick. In Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell combined some excellent acting with scenes that called for his gifted, physical/facial comedy. In this film, however, it's a complete dramatic role, and the ultimate compliment is that audiences can easily get lost in the acting and story, rather than referring to a subliminal understanding that Ferrell is a comedian playing a serious role. Rebecca Hall makes the most of a poorly sketched character, and much like Ferrell, she evokes a lot without resorting to too much emotion, with the exception of one scene. However, much like her role in Ben Affleck's The Town, she's playing a strong woman with recurring troubles, and in both films, she doesn't have the fortune of a screenplay that gives her a chance to realistically overcome her character's problems. Again, this could be another tangent for another essay, namely the often-discussed lack of realistic female roles in contemporary cinema. Then again, she doesn't falter; it's only the screenplay that gives the character the limitations, not the actress herself. Christopher Jordan Wallace's portrayal is sympathetic, and works as a good example of adolescent loneliness and turmoil. He's basically an innocent version of Nick, without the alcohol or the life experience, striving to understand where he belongs. While Nick grows towards acceptance of his changes, Kenny's redemption comes in more confidence. Rush writes the character well, avoiding teenage stereotypes.

With bad acting, Everything Must Go would have been a bland, tiresome indie drama. However, drawing on the actors' strengths, Dan Rush was able to create a vivid film that wasn't weighed down with the occasional limitations of the screenplay. As a feature film debut, it's the sign of a potential budding talent, especially since using Raymond Carver as a basis shows bravery and determination in a first-time adaptation. I'm curious to see if Rush ever develops any original screenplays. Even if he continues to work with adaptations, some stronger drafts will help immensely, and it's not at all inconceivable that he could eventually create even better films. As a start, he aims high and generally hits his targeted goals. With more focus, he could become a highly respected filmmaker, and audiences could eventually look back upon Everything Must Go as an early, noble step in his development.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thoughts From Printer's Row Lit Fest 2011

Yesterday afternoon, I gave into temptation and spent some time at Chicago's annual Printer's Row Literary Fest. When I attended last year, I bought about five or six books, which isn't that many compared to other book lovers, but still more than I usually gather in one setting. This year, given my current unemployment, I didn't want to go and end up spending money that I should be saving, so for roughly a day, I had it in my mind that I'd be staying away. Of course, as the afternoon rolled around, I found myself getting awfully twitchy, so I thought "to hell with temptation," and hopped on the train to do some walking around. The sunshine was utterly glorious, especially since I was heavily rained on last year. However, no matter what the meteorological state, dozens upon dozens of tents, filled with books, is always exciting.

This year, the atmosphere was special. As I've documented before, I was laid off from a career with a large chain bookstore (Borders), and even while I was employed, I found myself feeling guilty whenever I browsed one of Chicago's many independent bookstores, since my company was criticized for aiding the decline of smaller booksellers nationwide. Perhaps the special atmosphere was merely internal; however, and I'm going to go ahead and state the obvious. It's reassuring to see that physical books are still popular enough to draw thousands of people to a small area only a few city blocks in diameter. Granted, one has to wade through piles of used James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks paperbacks, but even on the second day, there was more than enough of a great selection. I also do what a lot of people do in that situation, namely browse and hope that a rare or out-of-print title has gone unnoticed and untouched, just waiting to be purchased for less than ten dollars. This isn't the case. However, there's usually a much better chance of finding cool British paperback versions of American novels, and those tend to have much more vibrant cover illustrations.

A few things that were on my mind during and after Printer's Row Lit Fest 2011:

1.) Just like last year, I was delightfully taken aback by the number of books available by Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, two of my favorite writers. However, I didn't buy any of them, since logic annoyingly took over. I have more than a handful of books at home by these two that I still haven't read, and buying them would have been a clear impulse decision. Granted, I fully plan on eventually reading their entire bibliographies, but every time I took one of their works off of a shelf or out of a box, I browsed and scanned for a second, bit my lip, and put it back. I'm sure that I'll eventually acquire You Don't Love Me Yet and Levithian, but being in a financial situation that doesn't allow every impulse I want is, for lack of a better word, sobering.

2.) Speaking of browsing: Book lovers, I'm one of you. We're brothers and sisters, and there are few things as soothing and mentally stimulating as getting lost among endless rows of great books. However, given the Lit Fest set-up, this leads to a lot of "traffic jams." Everyone was incredibly nice and polite, but I wish that more people had done what I did, namely browse faster, move along, and allow the lines to flow smoothly. It's hard to look at titles between people's shoulder blades.

3.) In addition to the bookseller tents, various publishers, newspapers, and literary magazines had tables set up along the sides. My girlfriend, ever mindful of my search for a new career (or, at this point, a job of any kind), politely asked if I had taken any copies of my resume with me or picked up any publisher's business cards. I answered a sheepish "no" on both counts, since I'm generally unprepared for random networking (a trait I need to improve upon), and since I also went to the fest on a whim. However, she was right. E-mailing resume queries to Chicago-based literary companies is one thing; actually talking with them is something much better. It goes to show that, while I'm capable of expressing myself with words, deft at handling copy-editing, and generally knowledgeable about most things literary, I tend to lack common sense. That trait is carefully absent from my current resume.

4.) Speaking of networking: I'm always sympathetic to struggling, newly-published writers. In the near future, I hope to be in a position to have material (fiction and non-fiction) ready for potential publication, so currently, I'm a few rungs below people who have actually been published by some of Chicago's small presses. During my time at Borders, there were a handful of small signings, and it was both saddening and encouraging to see authors doing their best to enlighten and publicize their works with an audience of four, with two of the audience members being random homeless people. With this in mind, I struggle with being sympathetic to pushy writers hawking their works at festivals. Of course, word-of-mouth has helped many a title gain proper recognition. However, having a book thrust into my hands and engaging in unwanted smalltalk with an overly-earnest writer is occasionally awkward. I do my best to be polite, and I want to offer them a pat on the back when other festival-goers blatantly ignore them. I just hope that, when I see my works in print, that I go about promoting it in the right way. It's not my nature, but even if it was, I simply can't see myself pushing a book like a used-car salesman. I'm withholding the author's name and book, since I found him to be funny, but the way he went about it felt odd. I wish him the best, I hope he sold some of his works, but that kind of networking isn't for everyone.

I didn't scope out any of the event tents, but my good friend Rachel did some live-tweeting of her own in conjunction with the website Booksellers Without Borders. She jotted down some excellent notes and quotations, and had the foresight to compile them in their own post. Again, had I actually thought ahead, I might have done something similar. Luckily, somebody else was using common sense. Kudos, Rachel.

I should do this without reference to the Lit Fest, but I want to salute and support a few of the booksellers who always do a dynamite job, both in-store and in book festivals. If you're a Chicago reader or book lover, you probably know about and patronize these places, but even so, I want to tip my cap and promote a handful of these fine establishments. If you're not a Chicago resident and find yourself visiting, please take the time to enjoy the offerings and the amazing staffs of the following places. This is just a sample, but they are among my favorites:

The Book Cellar

Powell's Bookstores

Barbara's Bookstore

Unabridged Bookstore

And finally, I did end up making one purchase. I went into the festival hoping to find a copy of Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead or Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell. I didn't find a copy of either, but, as is usually the case in a good bookstore (inside or outside), I managed to stumble upon something. Yes, this may have been an impulse purchase, but I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chicago Flame Archives: Chuck Palahniuk Interview

As I've mentioned quite a few times in various posts, I worked for the Chicago Flame newspaper (the student newspaper of the University of Illinois at Chicago) from 2002-2005, beginning as a writer for "The Inferno," the paper's entertainment supplement, before rounding out my tenure as the entertainment editor. Recently, the Flame's website has been retooled, and my old archives have been difficult to find. I've decided to save my physical copies of the old issues, and as I continue my ongoing job search, I'm hoping to scan the papers into a portfolio, but I also feel that it would be a good idea to archive them on this blog.

Throughout the summer, I'll be sharing my old pieces, but I must issue this caveat: with the very rare exception, these are not thrilling writing examples. I wrote for the paper between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two, a young age period that saw me struggling with my creative voice, and simply not having enough experience, media exposure, and points of reference to begin a journalism career (I still cringe when I read the end of this article, in which I gush that author Chuck Palahniuk is one of America's greatest novelists). I'll do my best to check my self-deprecation at the door. For my first archival piece, I present my interview with Palahniuk, conducted in August of 2002 at the Swissotel in downtown Chicago. As I've also mentioned in previous writings about Palahniuk, my literary tastes have changed in the last nine years, but he was one of the most polite, gracious interviewees one could ever hope to encounter.

Chuck Palahniuk: Up Close and Not Too Personal (originally published in the Chicago Flame, August 27, 2002)

Here's a word of advice. Try not to get too sappy with Chuck Palahniuk, because he will get sick of it mighty quickly. Palahniuk believes that today's literature and fiction contains too much emphasis on sentimentality, relationships, and overall predictable niceness.

This is where he comes in, being a writer famous for presenting characters and situations that are anything but wholesome. In the remaining months before the release of Lullaby, his highly awaited fifth novel, Palahniuk sounds off on several topics, including today's fiction.

"I'm sick of it," he says, commenting on the prevalent themes of today's literature. "It's all about family and looking for Mr. Right. There's way too much sweetness and reflection. Also, people define peer groups as family, and [literature] is blatantly about relationships."

Palahniuk feels strong dissatisfaction with actual topics as well as themes. "There's so much focus on parental issues and teen rebellion, also on memoirs. You have teenagers writing memoirs now. It's more about resolving the past than on looking at the future."

With that in mind, the premise of Lullaby is attributable to Palahniuk's knack of writing with graphic themes and mentalities. "It's sort of an evil Harry Potter. We all have fantasies of power and control, and this novel shows what could happen if we really had these powers, possibilities of our dark sides." He keeps comments on Lullaby to a bare minimum, relying instead on the publicity department of Doubleday Publishing to do that job. Instead, he is much more open to discussions on his previously published works.

Undoubtedly, his most famous novel is 1996's Fight Club, fueled by the movie version in 1999 starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Despite the fame, he expresses frustration with the ongoing mystique of the book and the film. To Palahniuk, Fight Club is an example of a silver cloud with a dark lining. "I should have quit writing and stayed as a mechanic," he says, referring to his previous job. "I had a good job as a mechanic, but had to quit because people were constantly calling me about Fight Club. I took my boss out to lunch so I could tell him I was quitting. He put his hands over his ears and said he didn't want to hear it."

Palahniuk also feels a stigma with his constantly being referred to as 'the author of Fight Club.' "It's going to say that on my tombstone," he says with a laugh. "Yes, I want to get beyond the point where Fight Club does not need to be mentioned."

Even today, fans and critics believe he harbors an underground secret. "At book signings, people will come up to me and ask 'So where's the fight club meeting afterwards?' I tell them that there is no fight club, and they'll say 'Oh, I know you're not supposed to talk about it.' Then they get pissed because I don't tell them. Also, newspapers want to send reporters to do exposes on fight clubs. They call me and ask where the fight club in Sarasota, Florida is located. I'm like 'Dude, I don't even know where Sarasota is.' Then they get pissed and hang up."

With Fight Club and Choke, the New York Times bestseller, Palahniuk expresses a fascination with support groups. "I like the dynamic of twelve-step and support groups, because they replace modern religion. You used to go to church, confess, and have all of your sins absolved. Now that happens with support groups."

Choke tells the story of Victor Mancini, a man swept up in a parallel world of sin and highly debatable goodness. Victor is intended to be a representation of a modern day Jesus Christ. "I wanted Victor Mancini to have a tendency to be Jesus for other people," says Palahniuk. "People have a desire to be divine for others." Palahniuk also downplays statements by fans and critics that he is a sort of messenger and critic of society's problems, despite evidence to the contrary in his works. "I don't think that society is going downhill anymore than it has been," he says.

The novel Invisible Monsters is probably the most daring novel he has written, and also the least-praised one at that. It tells the tale of a mutilated fashion model, her friend and cohort (a sex-changed bombshell, Brandy Alexander) as well as their encounters with colorful supporting characters. Subtle criticisms on the world of fashion are weaved into the plot. "I find all these attributes to a piece of fabric [silly]," says Palahniuk. Instead, the main intention of Invisible Monsters is a complete attack on gender roles and norms. Palahniuk has strong, almost controversial opinions on the characteristics of men and women in our society.

"Women watch Lifetime for information on relationships, and men watch The History Channel so they feel as if new information on actions has been taken away." Chuck Palahniuk is not a chauvinist. He is not a radical prophet for 21st century America. Above all, he is a writer, one with simple beliefs on writing that make for the gripping results. The main tool for Palahniuk is the heavy use of non-fictional elements in the fictional settings.

"I love the process of writing," he explains. On the use of non-fiction, he comments "It makes the realistic seem real in an unrealistic situation."

For someone who believes that his skills as a mechanic were more important than the writing talents, Chuck Palahniuk has had tremendous success with the latter. He is unfazed by worldwide recognition, a cult following of fans, and a major motion picture based on his very first novel. Palahniuk is a modest craftsman of words, quietly and calming continuing his establishment as one of America's greatest novelists.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...