The Grotesque, Yet Profound, Characters of Chuck Palahniuk

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Chuck Palahniuk’s novels are known for being disturbing, introspective stories that expose the dark underbelly of the human psyche. However, it is through this method of storytelling that the author breaks down the barriers of negative human behavior and examines the motivations and desires behind them. While Palahniuk’s main characters in Fight Club, Choke and Diary are offensively grotesque in many ways, their vulnerability and fragility reveals the deep human need for love, acceptance and nurturing. 

The main character in Fight Club is struggling with what it means to be a man, emasculated by his place as a weak male in a capitalist society; he strives to find a sense of belonging in a group of males. What the Narrator wants, but isn’t able to articulate, is the desire for male-social interaction; a deep and meaningful friendship with another male. Before starting the fight club, the Narrator looked for belonging in support groups where he was able to glean a false sense of brotherhood. After one support session, the Narrator realizes why he was drawn to the groups, he explains, 

“You had their full attention. People listened instead of just waiting for their turn to speak. And when they spoke, they weren't just telling you a story. When the two of you talked, you were building something, and afterward you were both different than before.” (57)

Here the Narrator begins to understand why he is so unhappy in his life, the society and culture he lives in values beauty and materialistic items instead of connections with other human beings. The Narrator begins to realize that he is a part of society as well, and notes that he wants to live his life in a way that values people over things (Burgess). When he decides to live his life differently, the Narrator runs into Tyler Durden, his character foil, and makes a connection with the charismatic but egocentric, sociopath unaligned with the ethical and moral theory. As the novel continues, the Narrator’s need to connect with males is apparent when he develops the fight club, where shows of brutality and aggressiveness give the Narrator a feeling of freedom from the restraints of society that provides a sense of fraternity (Lee). As a part of a new brotherhood of the fight club, the Narrator is able to free himself from the suffocating quality of materialism and responsibility; shedding his job, his belongings and his place in the society he has come to hate. However, even though the Narrator advances in his freedom, he also begins to reveal deeper vulnerabilities.

With these changes and newfound manliness, the Narrator shows the fragility of his emotions, especially when it comes to his friend Tyler, and combats feelings of jealousy and love which are confusing but powerful. During one night of the fight club, a new member arrives whom the Narrator calls “angel face” and he beats him to the point that “he wasn’t so pretty anymore” (217). The motive behind these actions is likely because the angel-faced man received extra attention from Tyler and the Narrator, who admits that he “wanted to destroy something beautiful,” (260) was frustrated and upset by this diversion of attention (Schultz). Even though the Narrator feels he has grown as a man, he still struggles with feelings of isolation and of being left out, which the reader feels simultaneously repulsed by the Narrator’s actions while also harboring a sense of compassion and pity. This very human feeling, paired with a very violent act, reveals the Narrator as being a dualistic character who is outwardly aggressive but who is still vulnerable emotionally.

Dualistic characters appear in many of Palahniuk’s novels, including Victor, the main character in Choke, who is struggling with internal conflict but who acts in opposition to the emotions he is feeling. Victor is initially a despicable character who is introduced as a man who is a sponsor for a woman in a sexual addiction group so that he can have sex with as many of the women in the group as possible. Palahniuk makes no apologies for Victor; he is obviously a morally corrupt conman, but he reveals an aching need for love that readers can relate to. However, it is ironic that Victor keeps up the mantra of “Love is bullshit. Emotion is bullshit. I am a rock. A jerk. I'm an uncaring asshole and proud of it” (25) throughout the novel because he desires love, but he seeks women only to appease his carnal desires. The reader discovers that he is afraid of love and when he has the opportunity to form healthy relationships, he rejects them; sabotaging all meaningful connections. When Victor considers his feelings about love he decides, “If it comes down to a choice between being unloved and being vulnerable and sensitive and emotional, then you can just keep your love”(150). However, this confession is obviously in opposition to how Victor is feeling, and his response is more about his fear of rejection than his disdain for love. Palahniuk’s writing draws the reader in with the dualism because Victor’s confessions are often what jilted lovers confess, who cry, “Who needs love?” while denying it is the one thing they want most. Even in denial, Victor admits many times to the reader about what he is really searching for, someone to care for him.

Victor’s need for nurturing is also apparent in one of his cons when he goes to a restaurant and pretends to choke on food only to be “saved” by a Good Samaritan. While he admits that his main goal is to get a free meal at a restaurant he couldn’t ordinarily afford, he also admits that the attention he receives from the restaurant patrons makes him feel cared for. When Victor reflects on his memory of someone who had saved someone by performing the Heimlich maneuver he remembers, “At That Moment, it seemed the whole world cared what happened to him. […] you had to risk your life to get love. You had to get right to the edge of death to ever be saved” (74). His fascination with how it feels when someone saves his life is a twisted but heart-breaking admission, Victor felt that in order to deserve love he had to be on the brink of death (Trott). While the reader understands that Victor is conning his way into people’s lives and exploiting them, his internal narrative of why he chooses to do this specific con is very telling of his vulnerability as a man. 

Palahniuk’s Diary deals with a very different aspect of human need, the struggle for an artist to create something lasting and the importance of suffering for great art. In a very different style of novel from Fight Club and Choke, Diary is written in a journal of the main character, Misty. Her struggle in life has always been to find the inspiration that she needs to create her next work of art. This may seem unimportant for some, but Palahniuk inserts the importance of the creation of art in Misty’s mind and she is “always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life” (47). The reader finds out that Misty is actually quite talented but has been thwarted because of her husband, Peter, who seems to keep her captive in a small village where she is forced to clean the hotel rooms of tourists. In this stifling environment, her creativity dies in the ennui of everyday chores and schedule and a part of Misty begins to fade as well. Because of the events of her marriage and her stark unhappiness, Misty detests her husband, who is in a coma after a suicide attempt. Like a prisoner, Misty has been reduced by the conditions of her life and begins to lose her sanity without her creative outlet.

Misty, unlike the Narrator and Victor, is a victim of the people in her life and this has left her broken and disturbed. She seems to have little control over the major events of her life and she is pushed into decisions, like moving and having a child, instead of pursuing the one thing that makes her happy, art. Peter does not seem to understand Misty’s need to continual creation and tells Misty, “The only thing an artist can do is describe his own face. ‘You're doomed to being you’” (80).  However, Peter does not seem to understand that Misty’s passion is a part of her identity and while it may reflect her, she is not “doomed” to be herself if “being herself” means creating magnificent works of art (Tuss). His disregard for her need to paint leaves her a shell of a person, only to be filled with animosity and disappointment toward her nearly dead husband.     

The three novels have a very unique style that Palahniuk is regarded for, especially the interrupted, out of order, and confused writing. The episodic and non-linear style avoids traditional structure and the plot may begin and then leap to a different, sometimes unrelated, part of the story. Palahniuk has likely chosen this style because it is representative of the main character’s mind. Choke, Fight Club and Diary have characters that are searching for something in life: Victor is searching for a purpose in life and a meaningful connection with a woman; the Narrator is searching for belonging in a society that prizes shallowness; and Misty is looking for artistic inspiration. The style connects to the searches of the characters because many times they do not begin their stories by noticing they are lacking something in their lives (Bernaerts). In fact, most of the characters spend time flailing, wallowing, and wandering without the notion that they are actually on a journey and, therefore, the plot flails, wallows, and wanders with them. The style reflects the journey, the path to love, acceptance, or inspiration isn’t an easy, clear cut path; but instead, it is a forest, set on a confusing trail that goes in the wrong direction or suddenly drops off a cliff. The style is representative of the character’s minds; disturbing, dark, and broken, an unlikely mix that appeals to reader’s sense of pity and compassion. 

Even in the dark recesses of the character’s mind, Palahniuk has tried to find connections between his sometimes-psychotic characters and his readers. The brutal Narrator from Fight Club reveals a need for belonging in a fraternal group through an aggressive and sadistic practice. Victor objectifies the many women he has sex with but admits his desire to be loved and cared for by a woman. Misty openly confesses her deep hatred for her husband in Diary because his single-mindedness ignored her need to pursue her artistic nature. Palahniuk has masterfully written these damaged characters in a style that both captivates, and confuses, the reader. The impact of the combination of grotesque characters and fragile human needs result in  novels that overwhelm the reader with naked reality.

Works Cited

Bernaerts, Lars. "Fight Club and The Embedding of Delirium in Narrative." Style 43.3 (2009): 373. MasterFILE Premier. 

Burgess, Olivia. "Revolutionary Bodies in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club." Utopian Studies 23.1 (2012): 263-280. Academic Search Premier. 

Lee, T. "Virtual Violence in Fight Club: This Is What Transformation of Masculine Ego Feels Like." Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 25.3/4 (2002): 418-423. Academic Search Premier. 

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996. 

---. Choke: a novel. New York: Doubleday, 2001. 

---. Diary: a novel. New York: Doubleday, 2003. 

Schultz, Robert T. "White Guys Who Prefer Not To: From Passive Resistance ('Bartleby') To Terrorist Acts ( Fight Club)." Journal of Popular Culture 44.3 (2011): 583-605. Academic Search Premier. 

Trott, Barry, and Kelly Fann. "Tapping into The Appeal of Cult Fiction." Reference & User Services Quarterly 51.1 (2011): 15-18. Academic Search Premier. 

Tuss, Alex. "Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley And Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club." Journal of Men's Studies 12.2 (2004): 93-102. Academic Search Premier.