Writers’ Retreat: Abandon Your Life for Three Months.
A simple ad found in small letters in the local newspaper, on the bus stop, in your local diner, on a tree next to your house. An add that might appeal to any undeveloped writing potential or to any socially awkward person looking for an escape. An ad that promises that after three months in solitude with like-minded individuals, you would have produced the masterpiece of your life. A mixture of modern Villa Diodati, Survivor, and Big Brother, Haunted can be easily the most disturbing Chuck Palahniuk novel I have ever read.
17 people decide to respond to the above ad and together with the organiser, a teenage boy trapped in an old man’s body due to a disease, Mr. Whittier, and his assistant, widow turned fugitive for killing her daughter, Mrs Clark, retreat to an abandoned theatre in the middle of the city, ready to write their magnum opus. The structure of the novel is quite unusual. It consists of 23 short stories, each preceded by a short poem about the author and a short narrative about events in the house. Each of the participants tells one story, with the exclusion of Mr. Whittier and Mrs Clark, who participate with several. None of the so-called writers is introduced by their real name; instead they are given nicknames depending on the story they tell – Saint Gut-Free, Lady Baglady, The Earl of Slander, Director Denial, Chef Assassin, you get the point.
Initially, all of the writers are promised a luxurious life, which would enable them to brainstorm and write. Hot water, heating, food, all of the prerequisites for a nice little Big Brother are in place. However, as the novel progresses, it turns out to be more of a Survivor type of retreat. The group unanimously decides that a nice little story about suffering, torture and murder would form a much more interesting topic for the audience. They set on with admirable determination to turn their life into hell, thereby selling it as an Academy-award winning movie, a best-selling novel, a mind-breaking talk-show, you get the drill.
As the story progresses, one cannot help but completely dive into the stories of the 19 people trapped together. The novel is told, narrated, and built by no-one and by all of them simultaneously. Palahniuk creates a gripping setting that doesn’t let the reader get off the book, slipping little bits of information at a time, creating a grotesque real picture of contemporary society. The characters, on their quest to ultimate suffering, begin chopping off their own fingers, toes, dick (!), sticking things in their anuses and vaginas, and engaging in cannibalism. As some of the participants are murdered or commit suicide, one cannot help but think of Agatha Christie’s 10 Little Indians.
Like always, it can be quite difficult to absorb and comprehend a Chuck Palahniuk novel. He seems to tell a lot, at the same time withholding even more. On a rather primitive first look, Haunted is a pure criticism of reality shows, of their desire to expose people’s inner lives and to make a show of their sufferings and torments.
On the other hand, it is also about humanity’s obsession with suffering. No matter what we say or do, we do like suffering. We cherish the pain and torturing, upon which we might emerge as both sinners and saints. We just love sharing these stories, in which a great injustice has been inflicted upon us, we simply adore the looks of both pity and admiration. And of course, we are, all of us, sitting and waiting patiently for someone to come and rescue us:
If we can forgive what’s been done to us…
If we can forgive what we’ve done to others…
If we can leave all of our stories behind. Our being villains or victims.
Only then can we maybe rescue the world.
But we still sit here, waiting to be saved. While we’re still victims, hoping to be discovered while we suffer.
And of course, these little sufferings make hell of a good stories. Stories of our past, we trap ourselves into. Stories we continuously tell to ourselves and others, to explain, apologise, justify. We’re addicted to those stories that somewhat define us. The rest, we just drain down the toilet, never to be mentioned again.
Sexuality, in all of its forms, is of course present in nearly every Palahniuk page ever written. Here comes of course the utterly famous Guts short story, which I hadn’t read before hand but its reputation has preceded it. A well-known fact is that Chuck Palahniuk reading this story out-loud to fans resulted in extra work for the local hospitals (fainting, throwing up; no dying yet). Guts follows the unusual ways in which people masturbate, a topic contemporary society still attempts to disregard and ignore. The examples include a boy sticking a carrot in his rectum, another one inserting wax into his penis, and of course the character that gave the title to the story. The one who, while masturbating sitting on the water intake on the bottom of his parents’ pool, found his intestines tangled in the filter and eventually had to gnaw them in order not to drawn. I do not in any way see this as a spoiler, because telling the story doesn’t come even close to reading Chuck Palahniuk tell it. I pride myself to a rather strong stomach, and even I was inclined to vomit while reading.
Guts, of course, is not the only short story that has the potential of giving you bad dreams during the night. Women in a women support group sexually abuse a participant, accusing her of not being a real woman after she changed her gender. Police offices using dolls for sexual purposes. A reporter who murders a child movie star only to create a Pulitzer-winning article for his newspaper. Not to mention the actual events in the theatre, upon one of which a woman is fed her own ass.
I’ve had a long retreat from Chuck Palahniuk ever since my disappointment with Choke. I felt that after a certain number of Palahniuk’s novels, I cannot be easily surprised. Haunted is certainly among his best, despite the fact that absolutely mind-blowing episodes often alternate with rather boring and predictable stories. Nevertheless, I feel Haunted touches on many themes, something his other novels failed to do. Most of all, Palahniuk spends a considerable time on human’s obsession with suffering and the meaning of life (and suffering for that matter):
Think of a rock polisher, one of those drums, goes round and round, rolls twenty-four/seven, full of water and rocks and gravel. Grinding it all up. Round and round. Polishing those ugly rocks into gemstones. That’s the earth. Why it goes around. We’re the rocks. And what happens to us—the drama and pain and joy and war and sickness and victory and abuse—why, that’s just the water and sand to erode us. Grind us down. To polish us up, nice and bright.
The ending is beautiful. Beautifully disturbing as the planet Earth is headed towards its destruction with the hopes of entering a new world of endless partying and pleasure.
As always, Chuck Palahniuk is not for the faintest of hearts. But beyond the disgusting, over-descriptive and sometimes outwardly sick stories, there is a universal truth about the world we currently live in. Haunted leaves to each and every reader the opportunity to take away that theme that mostly affects him presently. Be it reality shows. Or sexual pleasures. Or sufferings. Or the meaning of life. Or writers’ retreat. Or something else I totally missed.
More from Chuck Palahniuk:
People in France have a phrase: “Spirit of the Stairway.” In French: “Esprit d’Escalier.” It means that moment when you find the answer but it’s too late. Say you’re at a party and someone insults you. You have to say something. So, under pressure, with everybody watching, you say something lame. But the moment you leave the party…
As you start down the stairway, then – magic. You come up with the perfect thing you should’ve said. The perfect crippling put-down.
That’s the Spirit of the Stairway.
The trouble is, even the French don’t have a phrase for the stupid things you actually do say under pressure. Those stupid, desperate things you actually think or do.
“Until you can ignore your circumstances and do as you promise,” he says, “you will always be controlled by the world.”
The difference between how you look and how you see yourself is enough to kill most people.