Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

Diary: A Novel

Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday (2003) 256 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Chuck Palahniuk's Diary is, at its surface, the strange, compelling, and by turns unsettling and absurdly hilarious story of Misty Marie Wilmot, a reluctant painter and "poisoned drug addict possessed by the devil, Carl Jung, and Stanislavski." But it's also multi-layered and then some, and in one of those layers, perhaps the most poignant, the novel is or rather becomes more than Misty's account—it is the diary of Chuck Palahniuk, recording sapient insights into the plight of the successful or would-be successful Artist in Society.

On one level a book of neo-meta-fictional fake-outs and dead-end mazes, it forms a day-by-day account I suspect (at least with respect to its first half) was composed as such. As the narrator repeatedly points out, "Every portrait is a self-portrait," and "Everything is a diary," but further, beyond the truisms and clever sound-bytes: "As an artist, you organize your life so you get a chance to [work], a window of time, but that's no guarantee you'll create anything worth all your effort. You're always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life."

Well, he's not. And so much for The Artist's Way. Every artist has to suffer, but just not the way you think. At 41, the age of his protagonist, Diary is the work of a writer fully coming into his maturity and not liking everything he sees, to say the least. Yet while the basic ideas of Diary have been dealt with before (Borges? I could look it up, but who cares?), the recurring cycles of Art and of Life are major themes of the book itself. And the "personal" aspect? As Palahniuk himself told Christianity Today (of all publications) in 2002, "Every one of my books is really me wrestling with personal issues but in a very fictional way." Yes—though of course the story's the key.


Diary is in many ways a standard Chuck Palahniuk novel, in its plotting, characterizations, dark humor, narrative voice—but it goes beyond the others in several important ways, not the least of which is that it succeeds in expressing empathy and (potentially) affirms humanity in a way the previous novels have touched on and attempted, but never quite captured. Not that these qualities of themselves make good or great writing—they don't. But when it's Chuck Palahniuk writing, in that world that, like ours, is not just headed for hell but already in it, these sentiments carry weight. The closure of Diary is profound, while that of the previous books is often strangely... empty. This writer is a great moralist no less than C.S. Lewis and a psychologist as astute as Reich when Reich was right.

Palahniuk's publicist says the book "recalls... Rosemary's Baby." Well, I rather hope a movie isn't made of it, even if Polanski were to direct, though the novel features a nefarious couple that you can picture as Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer if you wish. It also recalls that story about the Lottery you read in 7th grade. But, less literally, it has something of the emotional vibe of Hawthorne, the humor of the end of Being John Malkovich... oh yeah, Misery (now you know they shouldn't film it, couldn't do it justice). I'm sure chatrooms are FULL of what it's redolent of.

All of which of course rather misses the point—this is not "genre" fiction, and is no more a "horror" novel than any of the others by Palahniuk. It actually seems to me to have three fairly distinct (but nearly seamless) sections—the first harkens back to Choke a bit, and contains lots of "How-to" essay humor and such, while the middle section is STRONG, almost certainly Chuck's finest shear WRITING to date. I didn't see how he could sustain it, but he does... with a finish like a good whisky, smooth after the bite.


Last year in Oyster Boy Review, I wrote a rather scathing review of Lullaby, which for me and many others was overly-hyped and unsuccessful. I think THIS book is where THAT book was going, and it works where and how its predecessor didn't. Lullaby is about the mysterious failure of language, magic and superstition, self-fulfilling prophecies, and it features a book, and of course fire. Same with his other ones, same with this one (hey, there are no "spoilers" in my reviews)—and there are obvious parallels between Diary and the other five novels. But take out words as the pivot of the plot and add paint: new horizons. I suggested in my review that Chuck read some Thomas Hardy, James Purdy, and Jung. Jung is EVERYTHING here, and several passages of description suggest that if the author hasn't read Return of the Native, he doesn't need to, while a few of the subtly riotous characterizations and exchanges of dialogue remind one of early Purdy at his best. I also suggested that Chuck write his next novel in the third-person; and his doing so while writing in the form of a DIARY, taking the reader in and out of the first-person consciousness, is the singlemost remarkable technical achievement of this book. Do I think Chuck Palahniuk read my review, thought about it, acted on it? Look, 1,397,845 rabid fans out there write the man and talk to him and drink with him and think they see veiled portraits of their ex-wife Bonnie in his "You want to be an artist, but you don't paint" lines. So hell, no! I'm just pleased with his work, is all, to see how much he's matured as both a writer and a thinker in just over a year, though the "shock of recognition" or "association" factor here is higher than in any novel I've read, ever. And the personal associations and recognitions are so strong because they go beyond the characters—they are, in a real sense, the book! The device of using a painter as a protagonist lets him flow, burst out...if this book reminds one of any other work of art, then, it could well be one of the works specifically alluded to or mentioned.


Palahniuk has perhaps become the most important contemporary novelist of the past 20 years, since DeLillo wrote White Noise and all of a sudden became a Major American Author, chipping in heady one-liners and peppering his landscapes with the spector of the Corporate Logo(s). And, like Palahniuk, ceased to be a "cult figure." Now DeLillo's seen by much of the generation which Palahniuk belongs to as some graybeard, part of the "mainstream"—but Palahniuk has of course now achieved this status too. Palahniuk's "mainstream" status is not a bad thing—he parodies or, as his publicist says, "updates" genre fiction to the times with his finger on the PULSE of the zeitgeist, in there drawing blood, even, collapsing in this Internet Age the old bifurcation between "cult" and "literary" fiction. Palahniuk is DeLillo's (and others') heir on one side of it, on the other, say, Jonathan Franzen. (Not that DeLillo is the only obvious influence for Palahniuk; one uncharacteristically emotional passage reminds me of Denis Johnson—whom Palahniuk has said he admires at his best, which is, well, GREAT). That Palahniuk's been on the cover of Poets & Writers too is just an obvious example of how FAR the novel is from being "dead" or "in decline," and it challenges the Kevin McGowins of the world to push even FURTHER.


But all this said, Palahniuk can't be done yet—or even close to it, because intense and relevant as it is, Diary is still a flawed masterpiece. The choppy style is part of the author's "signature," as are the repetitions of certain phrases, and the ironic descriptions made up of words from human anatomy (in Diary), as were the details of household cleaning in Survivor or furniture in Lullaby. Yet Palahniuk really goes over the top with this—yes, I understand the satire on Convention and Language, but while the details related to artists and art history and rare china patterns (a couple of which he got wrong, I suspect on purpose) to enhance characterization and situation become a clever and indispensable part of the story, lengthy Latin phrases describing facial muscles contracting or expanding into a certain expression become tiresome and annoying, and the phrase "Just for the record" occurs so many times that, just for the record, I could almost see him sitting there repeatedly hitting "Ctrl-V." But save for this, I find minor quibbles silly on such a monumental canvas as this, though the novel itself is only about 50,000 words.

The research—from Jain Bhuddism to graphology to architecture and beyond fits, and solidifies the emotive resonance of the novel. It's a work that gets you excited, for sure—I got 11 copies of Choke for my friends. Now I want to get as many or more copies of Diary for them, too! You know those friends you've got, the ones that read books? I'd forget I was reviewing this novel and find myself thinking, My brother should read this part. Christina Gerogiannis would sure LOVE that! And my son, Holden—he's growing up into a world that Chuck just captured in a line. An artist's diary.

For a reviewer, that's when you know you have a Winner, though there remains plenty to be said and written about this novel, and it will be, in chatrooms and later in classrooms and essays, even if it doesn't turn out to be the popular blockbuster it's expected to be (though who knows, with a work that operates at so many levels?). But finally, it is its spirit and its emotive power that affect me. I hope I never forget it, and I will close with a line that occurs late in the book that, for me, underscores the strange beauty this novel ultimately has:

It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness.

Complex fiction is worth nothing if it doesn't succeed anywhere but in its own complexity. But Diary does succeed. And it does so on its own terms.


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