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A Magazine for Sheffield

Chuck Palahniuk : The Showroom, 14th November

Under the piercing gaze of his creation Madison Spenser, Chuck Palahniuk begins with a disclaimer, “The world is full of fascinating, sincere, inspiring, wonderful stories.” He pauses. “But tonight…will not be.” Palahniuk has the timing and tender brutality of Kaufman, massaging our soft, guffawing bellies before punching them. As mentor Tom Spanbauer taught him, “Make them laugh, then break their hearts.” Spanbauer’s drama training shows in the way Palahniuk writes to read aloud. In a surprisingly nasal, bratty voice considering his suave appearance, he takes on the personas of the bewildered boys that typically populate his stories. “I write because I want to preserve what people tell me, to archive and chronicle what I find fantastically admirable,” he says, before snarkily puncturing this positivity. “My job is to tell you a bunch of things that will lodge in your brain and damage you in some way.” His shrapnel stories work by humiliating and exposing his protagonists, empowering their peers (and us) to accept or reject them. He reads Knock Knock, about a boy recounting his dad’s jokes. When his father lies dying, the son tries to tell his jokes back to him, failing miserably. Palahniuk confounds our expectations; instead of a punchline at the door, there’s just a punch. Palahniuk relies on “making the reader smarter than the protagonist”. If we feel superior, we’re more likely to care. So, the Damned trilogy’s Madison endears because she’s “book-smart but world-stupid.” Her emotional honesty asserts a kind of authority over us; for Palahniuk a much better way than info dumping to demonstrate his power. Asked to recommend three writers, his choices demonstrate the redemptive power of rawness: Amy Hempel, who “breaks your heart a thousand ways and you never realize how she did it”; Monica Drake, so good he stole some of her ideas; and Nami Mun, who’s written one “heartbreaking” book. He ends with Zombies, about a high school craze for DIY defibrillator lobotomies. The protagonist makes plans to copy when he sees how the troubled genius at school is happier now, masturbating in assembly and grinning. Redemption comes with a schmaltzy message of universal love, which somehow still made me want to cry. “My next book is a crime against humanity,” Palahniuk promises: hardcore sex told using Barbara Cartland euphemisms. This porn will touch us, but not where we think, just as tonight Palahniuk managed to be everything he said he wouldn’t. )

Next article in issue 69

Robbie Porter: A Dab Hand

Robbie Porter is a Scottish illustrator currently based in London. After studying visual communication in Leeds and working for a…

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