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He seems normal

Chuck Palahniuk's a polite guy. His books? That's another story.

May 19, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, ORE. — At the very least, "Snuff" is a difficult book to discuss over dinner. With its assemblage of nasty fluids -- bodily and otherwise -- and its over-the-hill-porn-star heroine who plans to copulate literally to death by taking on 600 men in quick succession, it's also nearly impossible to describe without squirming.

But for Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the novel, which comes out Tuesday, the book is just another chance to push the envelope. His is a nearly scholarly detachment from his subject matter. He discusses his story of paunchy, naked men and lurking vaginal embolism with a friendly, smirk-free smile behind wire-rim glasses.

A handsome, well-exercised 46-year-old with an almost Midwestern politeness, Palahniuk was looking back over his writing career at a funky restaurant that was once Ginger's Sexy Sauna, a massage joint that offered more than just a cure for a bad back.

Digging into his steak, he began talking about Annabel Chong, the USC student who offered herself as the object of a record-breaking mass sex scene in 1995.

"The fact that it was so unresolved was very attractive," Palahniuk said of the cultural dissonance between those who considered Chong a take-charge feminist and others who condemned her as a moral travesty. His novels, he said, come from that sort of muddy debate, "things that the culture really can't talk about openly."

Palahniuk's method is to sniff out such subjects, then pounce. "Things that last in the culture tend to be those unresolved issues," he said. "Like Ira Levin's 'The Stepford Wives' was a wonderful, entertaining way to discuss what Susan Faludi would later call backlash. Levin did that again with women's health and abortion with 'Rosemary's Baby.' He was always so ahead of the curve."

Of course, android housewives and devil babies are highly metaphorical and nuanced compared with Palahniuk's subjects.. "Fight Club," his 1996 debut, was about guys who go to office jobs tasting their own blood after getting in touch with their masculinity through basement brawls. "Choke," the 2001 novel that opens as a film in August, concerns a sex addict who raises money by choking on dinner in fancy restaurants. And now there's "Snuff," which finds new ways to connect sex and death.

"It's always about finding these cultural bugaboos," he said, "things that people can't talk about openly, and creating a metaphor that lets people deal with it."

A constant gardener

CULTURAL bugaboos have been good to Palahniuk, whose work Michael Silverblatt has described as part of the "transgressive fiction" genre. These days the writer, who came out as gay in 2003, lives with his partner and his dogs on eight acres along Washington's scenic Columbia River gorge, including a large garden to which he admits to being pathologically devoted.

Besides publishing nine novels, with total sales nearing 3 million copies, as well as a book of stories and an engaging portrait of Portland, Ore., "Fugitive and Refugees," Palahniuk has managed one of the most difficult feats of the publishing world: appealing to the elusive readership of young males.

He's like the world's coolest camp counselor, the sort who looks out for his kids and isn't above telling a few dirty stories and buying them beer.

The horror of the body, a revolt against consumerism and regeneration through violence are his recurring themes.

Detractors have said he's reached young men with a catalog of gross-out horrors. "We get extended riffs on venereal disease, genital odor, used feminine products, boogers and so on," Steve Almond wrote in his Times review of "Choke." "This is known in political circles as appealing to the base."

That base throngs to his legendary readings for a chance to meet their hero, and he doesn't want to let them down. More than 100 people, he said, have passed out at his readings of a short story called "Guts," about a teenager's catastrophic misadventures while masturbating.

"What a joy that was to read," said Palahniuk, recalling those appearances and looking wistful. "I wish I could read that for the rest of my life."

Palahniuk grew up in the Washington desert, first in a mobile home with his parents and then, after his father left, on his grandparents' farm.

He moved to Portland in 1980, right after graduating high school. It was still the punk era, and Palahniuk was turned on by the aesthetic he heard in bands like the Germs and Generation X.

"Punk songs all sounded alike," he said. "They started really intense, for 2 1/2 minutes, and then ended abruptly. And I found that really colored my taste in short stories. I wanted a story to enter midstream, and then go for several pages, and then end on these rushed, clunky notes."

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