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Chuck Palahniuk's blowup extravaganza

May 19, 2010 | 10:32 am
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Before Chuck Palahniuk began dumping boxes of shrink-wrapped plastic inflatables onto the stage and chucking them into the audience, the people who'd paid $40 for VIP tickets stood quietly in four orderly lines: getting tickets, getting through the gate, picking up their copies of his new book and then, finally, having the books signed by the man himself. A velvet rope and a few handlers gave him room, and Palahniuk took his time with each reader as he signed "Tell-All," his new novel, and one other item, if fans had brought something (many had). This pre-event calm would be shattered, soon enough, by enthusiastic blowup mayhem.

The author of "Fight Club" made his only Los Angeles appearance at Largo at the Coronet Theater on Tuesday night before a sold-out crowd of almost 300. His "Tell-All" is a story of fame and, I think, murder, set in classic Hollywood, with cameos by the likes of Cary Grant and Lillian Hellman. "I want to write to the strength of books," Palahniuk told the crowd. "I can make [the celebrities] do anything I want, as long as they're dead."

He's talking about the strengths books have in contrast with other media, particularly movies; Palahniuk knows he's in the unique position of writing for adults who aren't big readers. At the start of the evening, he asked how many had never been to a reading before: about a third of the audience members raised their hands. Yet here they were, shelling out $25 and more to sit in an audience and listen to Palahniuk. For that reason, perhaps, an evening with Palahniuk is both didactic and hilarious. He makes sure everyone is on the same page and that everyone is hyper-entertained.

"The world is filled with lovely, profound, enlightened stories," Palahniuk deadpanned, "but tonight will not be." Most writers would just read, but Palahniuk chose to describe both his style and his intentions before plunging in. His writing, as he explained it, "is minimalist -- settings, objects and characters are limited so they accrue more significance." He went on to point out that his works always are built around a paradox, often working form against content. He used his most famous work, "Fight Club," as an example, saying that the book "is about the rules of anarchy," he said. 

Before starting, he explained that he was going to read a story built around classic stand-up comedy (and jokes too dirty to repeat here), even while it's a sad story about a sick father. "Knock-Knock," which he'll continue reading on tour, has not yet been published -- it will appear in December's Playboy magazine. During an on-stage interview with the Nervous Breakdown's Brad Listi, Palahniuk said parts of the story had been hard to read. "To a big extent," he said, "that was my father."

It was a rare serious moment in an evening that organizer Tyson Cornell called "literary vaudeville." Taking breaks between traditional elements of such an evening -- the reading, the interview, the audience questions -- Palahniuk emptied boxes and boxes of plastic inflatables onto the stage, hurling the wrapped compressed packages into the audience. The crowd was challenged to blow up the 4-foot-tall gold statuettes -- something like an Emmy or an Oscar, but easier to get ahold of, what with them flying through the air. First finishers received a prize: a packaged, signed, inflatable plastic Thanksgiving turkey, something that seemed tied to the event only by its preposterousness. Later on, the statuettes were replaced by enormous red hearts because, Palahniuk said, "it is a love story."

At the end of his interview, Listi tried his version of James Lipton's Proust questionnaire from the Actors Studio. "What sound do you hate?" he asked, and there was a long pause. The theater, pungent with  plastic inflatables, was very, very quiet. "To be honest," Palahniuk finally said, "I hate silence." The satisfied crowd made some noise.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Chuck Palahniuk, right, signs books for fans before inciting blow-up madness. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / For The Times


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