THE 'CULT' NOVELIST CHANGES GEARS WITH AN ARTIST CHARACTER
SHOCK-NOVELIST CHUCK Palahniuk has a devout following, readers who enjoy the searing and the grotesque. His sixth novel, Diary: A Novel (2003), takes a new trajectory, introducing an artist as the main character, and then rooting the story in the paranormal.
Best known for his Fight Club (1996), and described by his publisher as “America’s most inventive nihilist,” Palahniuk delivers a high dose of titillating gloom in what might be called his first art novel. It is the purported “diary” of the trials and tribulations of Misty, an art student who married an apparently slacker husband, Peter (also an art student).
The marriage has taken her to Waytansea Island off the coast of Los Angeles, where Peter’s family is among a small, spooky “aristocracy” that is trying to ward off tourists and commercial developers. Unfortunately, as the story opens, Peter has slipped into a comma after an apparent suicide attempt, pumping exhaust into his car.
Misty is left with a thirteen-year-old daughter, a grinding waitress job at one of the tourist hotels, and a dominating mother-in-law who suggests she keep a “diary” of daily events so when Peter revives, he can read about her life.
Besides the essential plot of the novel, Palahniuk has put it together with several devices. One is the diary, a tradition, we’re told, of sailor wives when husbands were on long voyages. The wives usually put in each day’s weather, and thus Palahniuk peppers Misty’s diary with regular spinoffs, such as: “The weather today is calm and sunny, but the air is full of bullshit.”
Another device is the voice: Palahniuk uses several perspective, but with a strong emphasis on “you” and “your,” trendy since Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City (Its famous first line was: “It’s six a.m. Do you know where you are? How did you get here?”).
Next, the author uses two more tools, both with an artistic theme. First is the detailed and recurring description of human anatomy as learned in life drawing at art school. That is, the novel gives all the Latin names of muscles behind facial expressions and the sinews and bones underlying bodily forms. Second, Palahniuk builds on the conceit that great art is produced by suffering. Throughout the novel, we get a list of great painters and composers who suffered mental, physical or social travail. There’s also ample notes on the self-mortification and denial practiced by spiritual virtuosi.
In short, Palahniuk is a novelist who enjoys parading wide swaths of knowledge, which may be taken by some readers as delightful texture, or by others as just “too much information.” Either way, the plot becomes clear before long.
At first we think Peter is just a jerk, a feckless and somewhat gross art student. He cavalierly marries Misty (he’s rich and handsome, she’s poor and overweight) and then her takes her to the family island. Later, he “attempts” suicide and leaves her twisting in the wind (he’s in a coma throughout the novel). Still, for some reason, Peter’s mother tells Misty, “You will be a great artist.” And, indeed, almost miraculously, Misty starts producing great art.
Due to Misty’s depression and substance abuse, however, the family doctor on the island prescribes her pills, and eventually clinical treatment. Here is where the horror part begins. Misty is locked in a room in one of the resort hotel attics and, strapped to a bed and administered fluids and medication, she completes 100 drawings and paintings in a kind of prolonged delirium. She has been made to suffer all along so her art turns out “great.”
In time, with the help of Peter’s friend, Angel, Misty figures out what’s going on. “It’s a plot,” she says after escaping the room. And so it is, and here is where the paranormal-ghost-reincarnation side of the story kicks in.
The island has a curse; it labors under a “karmic cycle.” Generations earlier, a woman artist helped the island prosper by her great financial success. After she died, she came back into the world every four generations when “the island ran out of money.” She, too, like Misty, wrote a diary.
On every karmic cycle, the spooky elite who control the “traditions” of the island send their sons out to art schools in America. They try to find where the woman artist has reincarnated (so to speak), marry her, and bring her back to the island. There, she would again be “the greatest artist of all time,” hold a major show, produce a wealth of sales, and then mysteriously die (in Misty’s case, the good doctor had put the poisons found in paint pigments in her pills).
Peter, not the slacker we at first think, wanted to end the cycle. Of course, given our de rigueur times, Palahniuk has made Peter a gay hero, the lover of Angel (who helps save Misty, but is murdered). Although Peter had followed island “tradition,” going to an art school, finding Misty, and bringing her back to fulfill the cursed cycle, his true plan is to blow the whistle on the island cabal. That is why someone put him in the car filled with exhaust.
Not exactly a Fight Club plot (which is about violence as a radical psychotherapy to end a character’s insomnia). Still, Palahniuk’s 2003 storyline in Diary took the author into the growing market for dark, paranormal fantasy. His using an artist, in fact, precedes similar works of fiction: Canadian fantasist Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream (2007), Stephen King’s Duma Key (2008), and Terry Goodkind’s The Law of Nine (2009). These authors all use a painter and his or her paintings as channels between two worlds, letting the painters joust victoriously with vengeful ghosts or otherworldly beings.
The Pacific Northwest’s Palahniuk stands apart by sticking to his trademark prose, stark and eager to tell of all the painful, violent, and disgusting things that happened to people, their moods, and their bodies.
A final device concludes the novel. It’s one of those come-full-circle formats that is fair game. Misty and her daughter escape the island. The bad news is that Peter and Angel have died in their battle against the island cabal; plus, the art show hotel burns down (set afire by the daughter), leaving 132 charred skeletons. The good news is that Misty has the entire story written down in her diary. So she changes her name to Nora Adams, and sends the diary to an author who happens to be named “Chuck Palahniuk” to consider publishing it in full.
And that children, is how Diary: A Novel was published. “There’s something out there!” (as they say in the “X Files”).