I read somewhere a critics’ opinion that whatever Chuck Palahniuk novel you start with, it is going to be your favorite. My first one (I am not counting 1/2 read Fight Club and fully watched movie) was Invisible Monsters and the author’s nihilistic, self-deprived and all-in-all desperate and desolate world shocked me. His fragmented language, his habit of saying more with less, his condemnation of contemporary society and his characters, different and unable to fit, created a formula for Chuck Palahniuk. A formula that was not disputed in Survivor. Nevertheless, as with sex, reading Chuck Palahniuk gets better and better with experience – you will always remember your first but you enjoy it more and more as you gather more experience.
It all starts with a hijacked airplane with one passenger – Tender Branson, a member of the religious Creedish Cult. His life, just like his name, is fabricated. All the boys (except the first-born) are Tender and all the girls are Biddy. Born and raised in a religious cult, where children are bred to be servants of the human race, Tender is just three minutes late. Exactly three minutes separate him from his bigger brother, who is allowed to marry and raise children in order to populate the Creedish community. The rest of the children – the other Tenders and Biddies – are carefully manufactured by the cult leaders to be servants. Ask them how to take out a stain. Ask them how to make beds. Ask them how to cook octopus. Ask them what is the right way to eat a salad. They know it all.
When they come of age, the little Tenders (one who tends) and Biddies (one who is biddable) are sent in the wide world to serve the “superior” human race. They are trained to be invisible and efficient. From a young age the cult has cultivated in them a fear and repulsion towards any form of entertainment – sex, television, drinking, smoking, you name it. These ideal robots work all of their life and send the money back – so that the Creedish cult can produce more and more robots and multiply. And whenever they have completed their mission (whatever that is, maybe successfully clean a stain?) they will be summoned by God and rewarded for their virtuous life. In other words, they will commit suicide (don’t expect something fancy here).
Tender Branson is one of those cult members and among the few that haven’t been “summoned to God”. The survivor becomes a national celebrity, a form of a spiritual leader to the masses. He is again manufactured – this time into someone society can look up to solve their problems, to give them insight into the future, to perform all sorts of miracles. A clown in a fancy dress:
People are looking for how to put everything together. They need a unified field theory that combines glamour and holiness, fashion and spirituality. People need to reconcile being good and being good-looking.
“People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.”
All of his life Tender Branson has been told what to do. By the cult leaders (how to clean and serve, what to avoid and not do, how to live humbly in order to get close to God and eventually, how to kill himself). By the family he works for (through a speakerphone or through his carefully managed schedule that tells him exactly what he should be doing at that particular time). By the agent that creates a messiah out of him (how to become a celebrity, what to train, what to eat, how to behave, what to say to the masses). Even by Fidelity, his friend with the unusual ability to foresee the future. And at once, Tender realizes:
You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice. Every time you don’t throw yourself down the stairs, that’s a choice. Every time you don’t crash your car, you re-enlist.
And Tender makes the first and probably last choice of his life. The novel starts with Chapter 47 on page 289 and ends with Chapter 1 at page 1. It follows backwards the life of Tender Branson – what went wrong in the Creedish community and in his life as a servant and later as a guru. Why is he telling his story alone to a black box in a hijacked airplane? Do we really have a choice? Isn’t society just a bigger version of the Creedish cult – manufacturing us into the obeying human species? We live in a pre-determined world – there is a right way to do everything. We know what is expected from us and we live a life according to society standards – we are born, we study, we work, we marry, we raise children, we work, we raise grandchildren, we work, we don’t work anymore, we die. And whoever steps outside that path, isn’t he an outsider, a stranger, a lunatic? Someone whom you would avoid and cross on the other side of the street? I don’t know. Maybe death is the only choice we have. Or maybe life is the only form of rebellion.
The Sun is total and burning and just right there, and today is a beautiful day. Testing, testing, one, two
More from Chuck Palahniuk: