Bad Religion in fact created 3 versions of "Stranger than Fiction." The first is the American version with only 15 songs, ending with "21st Century Digital Boy," the second American version with 18 songs, ending with "Leaders and Followers," and the import version, with 17 songs, ending with "Markovian Process."

DON'T EXPECT PERVERSION. THOUGH the book opens with a cowboy and a cowgirl naked, covered in chocolate pudding and whipped cream, performing what I'll discreetly call "acts" upon the stage of a bar, don't expect the sustained unsettling Palahniuk-ness of his fiction. Chuck Palahniuk is a weird guy (we're told in some ad copy) who writes weird, dark, edgy (et cetera) novels—and yet his life is, platitude of platitudes, stranger than his fiction.

Don't believe it. This book, this book of essays and articles, is if anything an affirmation of normality.

We begin on stage, at the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival. The sort of Sex Fair we've mostly all heard of but never attended—not out of prudishness so much, I suspect, as the fear that we'll grow bored of it. We begin, perhaps, with Palahniuk seeking mutants and outcasts, seeking some shocking image, and instead finding naked people, sunburned, standing in just another line to buy merchandise.

Later we meet a handful of men who build castles, a Rocket Guy, a room full of amateur wrestlers spitting and sweating to make weight, minor celebs such as Marilyn Manson, and so on. Portraits of communities, of specific people, of Palahniuk himself.

We could call this a collection of unrelated stories, written mainly for magazines, bound together and sold because, well, it would sell—but that wouldn't be the truth. There is a cohesion here: these are stories about, above all, the way that we relate to one-another, the way that we arrange for others to relate to us. I don't know why he called it "Stranger than Fiction" (besides the marketing), but step one is ignoring the title.

STEP TWO IS YOU forget what you think you know about Palahniuk. I've already had my rant there and there, but the jist is that he's not a destructive writer or a nihilist, and if it seems sometimes that he's pissing on the American Dream—then . . . well, yeah, that part's true:

If you haven't already noticed [he begins the book's introduction], all my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.
    In a way, that is the opposite of the American Dream: to get so rich you can rise above the rabble, all those people on the freeway or, worse, the bus. No, the dream is a big house, off alone somewhere. A penthouse, like Howard Hughes. Or a mountaintop castle . . . .
    Whether it's a ranch in Montana or basement apartment with ten thousand DVDs and high-speed Internet access, it never fails. We get there, and we're alone. And we're lonely.

His books are about striving to replace that loneliness, about tearing it down, and then rebuilding. This opens him to a certain sort of obtuse criticism, and if you're inclined to read book reviews you've probably run into it.

This book, at the very least, clears all that up. You could call it "soft" or "uneven," and you might even be right—but you'd never call it "uncaring." In "Bodhisattvas," one of the book's most extraordinary stories, Palahniuk writes of a woman whose dogs are used to search for human remains after tragedies large or small. He writes of the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras—Michelle, the woman, narrates as she pages through photo albums of the disaster; Palahniuk does what he does most throughout this book, he listens.

In another story he interviews the political writer Andrew Sullivan and publishes the article without comment or commentary, one long quotation left to stand on its own. He interviews Juliette Lewis and titles the article "In Her Own Words."

In his introduction (one of the most interesting pieces in the book), Palahniuk says "It's hard to call any of my novels 'fiction'." He explains that, in researching Invisible Monsters, he'd call up phone sex operators and ask for their "dirtiest" stories. That policeman/blackmail/gonorrhea plot-line, it's basically found art. The narrator in Fight Club, that's Palahniuk at twenty-five, volunteering as an "escort" for a charity hospice, driving terminally-ill patients to their support groups, watching, listening.

This book, it's about how we tell each other our stories. How those stories are greater than fiction.

WE HAVE WRITERS, QUITE a few of them, who tell stories better than the rest of us. They write epics, they write fictional biographies, they write vast, elaborate science fiction series, and their stock in trade is catharsis. Most of them use words poorly.

We have the rare writers who think more clearly than the rest of us. We could call them, loosely, philosophers. We could call them "simple"—not so much because, like precision athletes, they "make it look easy" (though they do). "Simple" because in retrospect their progression of thought seems almost inevitable. "Simple" as in "unencumbered." And, in an Aesop sort of way, they deal in the moral.

George Orwell comes to mind.

Chuck Palahniuk isn't a storyteller. Not the way of Stephen King or John Irving or Charles Dickens. He aspires to be, especially in his two most recent novels (this is the source of much of my ambivalence toward them). And he doesn't even pretend to be a philosopher.

But, see, this man can write.

It's about the assembly of the sentence. An understanding of the suspense in every full stop. The flow from a long, complex construction into a short, sharp jab. We'd call it scansion and pacing if we could accept our language even slightly detached—but we can't. So we'll call it pulse. Hemingway had it, and Fitzgerald at his best owned it, and from what I figure James Joyce invented the goddamn thing.

Palahniuk, I guess you'd say, inherited it. He comes from the school of minimalism—which he talks of, at length, in "Not Chasing Amy." It is, from my reading, a meditation on charging language so full of static electricity that it crackles. Understanding the whole breadth of context that's possible in any phrase or description, if only it could be worded perfectly. Omitting needless words. So on.

The point is that he's obsessive at the technical level, which if nothing else is a prerequisite for this, this pulse. This thing that draws me to read each of his books. This thing that evokes, in a writer, nothing more sharply than envy.

AND THERE WE HAVE the weakness of Stranger than Fiction: that the language doesn't crackle, not like his novels. The book is mainly journalism, and it reads like magazine journalism—well-written and interesting and yet, for the most part, fleeting.

For two-thirds of the book Palahniuk buries his voice, his solitary, wisecracking, lonely voice. Which I think we can all agree is his thing. He has to rely on secondary talents, on being the storyteller (which he does passably), on being the philosopher (which he does not). But these are not why we read Chuck Palahniuk.

There are flashes of wit and raw talent. Little pieces of the voice we expect as he describes the screenwriter's pitch, the life story we all have to sell. As he lays out literary minimalism. As he speaks of his murdered father. And as we come to the book's third section, the autobiographical section, we find full-bore Palahniuk. We find what, I suppose, we were hoping for.

For those who read his books, this is probably enough: The true stories that echo and illuminate the novels we've read. The new insights. So on. There are things we want to know about our writers—the backstage, confessional type.

For the other readers, yes, this is an interesting book. Not extraordinary, not groundbreaking, but it does tell us something about communication, about community, about what it's like to build castles out of stone, about the small details of large-scale disaster, about how the questions we ask others often explain ourselves—

Christ, I said he was no philosopher.

But, man, he still can write.

Stranger than Fiction : True Stories by Chuck Palahniuk
231 pages, Copyright © 2004 by Chuck Palahniuk
ISBN: 0-385-50448-9

The following refers to a movie not related to the Pahlaniuk book also written up in this node.

I ended up crying at the end of this movie. Noting that I was sitting alone in my apartment watching the movie on a Macintosh screen, wearing headphones, slightly too cold because I hadn't reset the thermostat and surrounded by junk from my ongoing attempt to move to another city, my first thought was "This frigging movie made me cry, and considering that I'm single, it's a fucking waste."

Stranger than Fiction is a metaliterary film. Note how I slipped that pseudointellectual term in there? Good, because it's a metaphor. No wait; it's a pun. The film is both, in fact, metaliterary and pseudointellectual. It's so damn pseudointellectual that Dustin Hoffman plays a professor of English literature whilst Emma Thompson plays an author of significant works thereof. The movie is about writing, and about living, and what to do when doing both when you have too much or not enough information about what you're supposed to be doing.

Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, is (at the outset of the film) the most routinized and boring individual ever seen, at least in this movie's world. True to form, he's an IRS auditor. Everything is going along fine as the narrator explains to us, over the movie's beginning minutes, what Harold's life is like over the course of one of his boring and identical weekdays.

The next day, Harold starts to hear the narrator too.

Not all the time. Just when he (as we the viewers know) is 'on script.' When he starts looking around for the voice's owner, talking back, or trying not to do things the voice is explaining that he's doing, it disappears, only to resume with a slight air of edgy impatience when he finally goes back to toeing the storyline.

This would be a run of the mill man-hears-voices story, save for two things. The quality of the cast (which, to my amazement at my own words, does include Will Ferrell) and the (ha!) writing. You see, Harold's in trouble. At one point, the narrator used the phrase 'imminent death.' While Harold, with the assistance of professor Jules Hilbert (Hoffman), to whom he was referred by a psychiatrist (a most bemused Linda Hunt), tries to figure out whether he's in a tragedy or a comedy and what he should do, the story - with the assistance of a pissed-off and meddlesome wristwatch - starts to loop about somewhat gleefully. Almost as much as that last sentence.

I won't say this is on par with or even in the same league as If On A Winter's Night a Traveller for metafiction; however, this is a movie. It's operating under a severe handicap of both form and time. Within that handicap's constraints, I must say, it does a really really nice job. The parallels between the ending of the story in the movie and the story of the movie made me smile while sniffling.

See, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), the author of this ongoing story/book/narrative, starts to have thoughts about what it means to live, as she thinks about what it means to write - and she starts to think about the characters that she's written and how they lived.

And it all changes.

I recommend this film for a good date movie. If you're a secret sentimentalist like me and weep buckets at a good Merchant/Ivory production, rent it with a bowl of popcorn and a good bottle of wine. Or whisky, which I can recommend from personal experience. Don't expect much that's important to come out of this. But as the film ends, think about what I just said in the previous sentence.

Stranger Than Fiction
Directed by Mark Forster; written by Zach Helm

Will Ferrell - Harold Crick
Emma Thompson - Karen Eiffel
Queen Latifah - Penny Escher
Maggie Gyllenhaal - Ana Pascal
Dustin Hoffman - Jules Hilbert

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