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Chuck Palahniuk: prophet or profane?

June 9, 2008 |  2:55 pm

SnuffchuckpalahniukChuck Palahniuk's bad-boy books are received by an avid fan base; visitors to his website are invited to join "the cult" of Chuck. Nine years after the film version of "Fight Club," he still draws capacity crowds — in Minneapolis last month, 350 people packed in for a reading of his new novel, "Snuff." That book is currently on the N.Y. Times bestseller list even as his previous one, "Rant," is a paperback bestseller at the L.A. Times.

Of course, popularity is no guarantee of critical acclaim. And Palahniuk is pushing literary boundaries, if not buttons, with "Snuff," which tells the story of an aging porn star trying to break the record for copulations on camera — she's got 600 men lined up, and one or more may want to kill her. (At readings, Palahniuk gives away autographed blow-up dolls — autographed where, exactly, is NSFW.)

Remarkably, many critics have looked past his role as "gross-out cartographer of the modern male id" (Washington Post) and found "a writer who is unafraid to flay open our cultural DNA" (Los Angeles Times). The San Francisco Chronicle said that Palahniuk creates "the folktales and mythologies of our time, the stories that people a hundred years from now will read to correctly understand who we were."

That's some praise — but not everyone wants to see themselves reflected in Palahniuk's mirror. "What the hell is going on?" the NY Times lamented in a review of "Snuff" this weekend. "Not only has America tried to ruin the rest of the world with its wars, its financial meltdown and its stupid stupid food, it has allowed its own literary culture to implode.... Whatever point Palahniuk meant to make seems to have been lost in a self-induced miasma of meaninglessness."

This seems to be more than just a generational difference of opinion. L.A. Times reviewer Tod Goldberg is in his 30s, and Lily Burana, whose review for the Washington Post almost jumps up and down with glee, is too (judging by her '80s punk bona-fides). These two are certainly old enough to critically judge Palahniuk's work. The difference seems to be that these reviews, like the one in the San Francisco Chronicle, took "Snuff" on its own terms. They didn't expect it to be Twain.

But at the N.Y. Times, Lucy Ellmann is preoccupied with America's cultural decay; she's dismayed by Stephen King and John Grisham and their "props," corpses and corn chips. In that environment, what chance do John Updike or Jane Smiley have — let alone a button-pushing, gross-out novelist like Palahniuk?

Carolyn Kellogg

Read the reviews:
May 20 - Los Angeles Times
May 22 - San Francisco Chronicle 
June 8 - New York Times
June 8 - Washington Post