The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Monday, 27 June 2011

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

I was lent this novel by a friend. She didn't tell me much about it other than it was by the author who wrote Fight Club and I should read it. I got an inkling that she had not altogether enjoyed reading about the main character. I have not read anything else by the author but I loved the movie of Fight Club so I figured it was going to be an interesting one.

Once again this year I was reading a book about a former member of an enclosed religious cult now let loose on the modern world (see Whit by Iain Banks) but it is there that any similarity between the books ends. What one tells you in great detail, the other uses language to hint at, allowing the reader to fill in the rest.

This is the story about Tender Branson, told by himself, as he hurtles deliberately to earth, alone on a jet soon to run out of fuel, recording his life on the Black Box recorder. A former home help hired out by his community, who have now committed mass suicide, he is one of the few hundred survivors of the cult, and the number is dwindling further due to cult member guilt and a murderer popping off the survivors. Soon our narrator is the only one left and becomes an evangelising celebrity sucked into the shallow world of fame and lies.

The book is intriguing from the start with the chapters and pages counting backwards. The narration is punchy, glib, and economical with words and information while we can fill in the gaps readily with our own observations on the image driven modern life of the West.

Tender Branson is not a loveable character, in fact I didn't care a whole lot about his fate at all. Seriously warped by his constrictive upbringing and then the banality of the outside world, he gets off on advertising his own phone number as a help line for the desperate so he can listen to their suicidal rantings. When, on his encouragement, one of them does himself in, he obsesses about finding his burial place. Enter Fertility Hollis, the victims sister, who can predict future disasters, and the plot goes off on several tangents at once, advancing our protagonist through many bizarre and extreme scenarios, before hurtling towards its conclusion.

This book is driven by comedy, not realism, and it takes everything that is bad about Western society, multiplies it by fifty, and gives us it back to laugh at and be appalled by it. We recognise this world but it has mutated to an alarming proportion. It is fast paced with multiple plot strands. Some of the strands end up ridiculously off-kilter.

This is not a book I would have read ordinarily so I enjoyed the refreshing angle, the unusual setup and the narrative which I thought was clever and suited the comment it was making. I did find that it lost pace in the second half though, and the ending just went nowhere so felt as if it ended abruptly with no surprises. Please be warned, if you are easily offended, have a staid sense of humour or have issues with suicide or extreme behaviour, this is not the book for you. However if you like Fight Club the movie you will certainly get the authors style, and if you want a satirical comment on how absurd aspects of our lives, especially driven by the media, have become, then this book will entertain. I will be careful who I recommend it to, but I have recommended it already.

A totally bonkers ride with scarily resonant messages, however extreme.

You can check out Survivor on Chuck Palahniuk's website by using the link.

There are quotes from Survivor, use the link, but remember, there will be spoilers.

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