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That queasy feeling

September 28, 2003|Michael T. Jarvis

Chuck Palahniuk is a writer whose work elicits a passionate response. The author of "Fight Club" and the recently released "Diary" trades in harsher, less varnished truths, and his fans are known for their devotion. (When Random House decided to promote "Diary" with "street teams" that would advertise his work with fliers, stunts and word of mouth, the book's Web site was swarmed with volunteers.)

Still, it was a bit of a shock when the fan base began to swoon, literally, at Palahniuk's readings. "So far 25 people have passed out and two have gone to the hospital," he says. "It's happened in every city, at every stop on the book tour," which included a recent L.A. stop.

The cause of the visceral reaction? It's an unpublished work called "Guts," which Palahniuk describes as "three true masturbation stories gone wrong," welded together into a three-act story. "The first two-thirds are hilarious. People just roar, they're so pulled into it. They are embarrassing and humiliating and funny stories. The story almost kills me. It's tough for me to read. It's ultimately a really upsetting story."

That's a bit of an understatement. At Columbia University, a listener had convulsions and threw up, Palahniuk says. "It scared me. The official from Random House asked me to stop, but I wanted to leave it up to the crowd." When the audience voted to continue, Palahniuk obliged and no injuries ensued.

The writer, whose legion of cult followers swelled after "Fight Club" became a film, insists the reaction isn't a sick joke. "I think people are hyperventilating a little bit," he says. "It's like in cults, they make you chant, and in fundamentalist religions, they make you sing. It has the same effect. When the plot twist happens in the last third of the story, people are physiologically set up for passing out."

Palahniuk appreciates "seeing what a story could do," but was unnerved when one man screamed while unconscious. "It's a compliment," he says, "but I don't want to see people in pain and paying for medical bills."

Curious? You can read "Guts" in next February's edition of Playboy. The magazine's fiction editor bought the story after hearing it at a New York reading during which two people fainted.

-- Michael T. Jarvis

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