Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk


Shut out the lights on the world below

Check it, in Chuck Palahniuk’s third novel there’s this religious cult right, and they off themselves Heaven’s Gate style, but a few members actually pull through and go on to live in the outside world. One by one these former cultists start committing suicide (or do they?) until there’s just our loveable anti-hero, Tender Branson, left as the lone survivor. He’s dictating his life story into the black box recorder of a plane he’s hijacked that’s set to crash land somewhere in Australia.

And would you just look at those chapter and page numbers?  They’re counting backwards towards zero, because Branson is running out of time.

What people forget is a journey to nowhere starts with a single step, too.

Got all that? Good. Now throw in some assisted suicide, porn, truck driving cross country, the ability to foresee the future, arranged marriage, sex, the super bowl, disaster, birth, and what you end up with is your typical Chuck Palahnuik novel.

The only difference between a suicide and a martyrdom really is the amount of press coverage.

I’m not necessarily knocking the guy.  When it works, Palahniuk’s ability to create and manipulate situations to their absurd extreme truly is a gift. He can make us take a hard look at the simple everyday things we take for granted like nobody’s business.  He can twist and turn situations and events so that they’re exposed from new angles and can be seen in a wholly different light.  However most of the time his novels do tend to feel like they follow some sort of predetermined formulaic blueprint for success, and as a result it can become really hard to tell exactly where one tragically flawed narrator ends and the next one begins.

The joke is, we all have the same punchline.

Underneath the top soil, buried in that trademarked dirty dirt that’s always dirty in the exact same way, there’s generally some amazing social commentary at play. Throughout the pages of Survivor, Palahniuk turns his eye towards our universal obsessions with religion and death, and our constant desire to bask in the glow of a warm spotlight.  Oh yes, this novel is chock full of Christians selling prayers, marketing gurus manufacturing celebrity out thin air to cash in our desire to want that which we can never hope to attain, and a general lack of empathy for our fellow man.  In other words, it’s supposed to be all of the bad stuff about our society, magnified and repackaged for our enjoyment.

Nobody wants to worship you if you have the same problems, the same bad breath and messy hair and hangnails, as a regular person. You have to be everything regular people aren’t. Where they fail, you have to go all the way. Be what people are too afraid to be. Become whom they admire. People shopping for a messiah want quality. Nobody is going to follow a loser. When it comes to choosing a savior, they won’t settle for just a human being.

The real question becomes: is this entertaining?  Surprisingly the answer here is yes.  Survivor is the rare gem in Palahniuk’s body of work.  It’s the one novel that actually finds his blueprint executed to maximum effect.  It will disgust, it will enrage, and it will make the reader ask some difficult questions about society.

The problem in this case was you can’t be a middle-aged virgin in America without something being wrong with you. People can’t conceive of a virtue in someone else that they can’t conceive in themselves. Instead of believing you’re stronger, it’s so much easier to imagine you’re weaker.

Now if only the rest of his work was even a fraction as good as this…

Survivor ★★★★☆
By Chuck Palahniuk
W. W. Norton & Company
304 Pages
ISBN 9780393047028

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.