Phoenix Unpacked: Part Three – Connecting the Dots
Note: This essay contains spoilers for the new Kindle Single, 'Phoenix' by Chuck Palahniuk. If you haven't yet read this wonderful story, remedy that right now.
Read Part 2 of this essay series here.
by Chuck Palahniuk
Twenty years ago, my next-door neighbor got pregnant. Her husband complained to me that he was now required to clean their cat’s box. Because of toxoplasmosis, his wife explained. She told me that toxo was a parasite in cat feces, and it could cause blindness in unborn children. At the same time I was volunteering to care for AIDS patients. Soon enough I was cleaning the patients’ cat boxes because of a similar threat to people with compromised immune systems. Then came Trainspotting, and the character Tommy died from the infection transmitted by the book’s kitten. That’s how far back I began to write Phoenix. Back in 1992? In 1993?
At the time, a lot of my friends were getting pregnant. Most of them had cats that had been surrogate children -- beloved -- but now those pets occurred as menacing leftovers from a previous life. It was always a tragic stalemate. These couples loved their cats, but they didn’t want to risk the health of a new child. Most of those cats were old, unappealing cats and that made them unadoptable. Two friends, I’ll call them Glenda and Brad, decided that they would have to euthanize theirs. On the day they’d planned to end the cat’s life Brad noticed that its bag of food was almost full. It irked him to waste so much good cat food so he proposed keeping the cat until the bag was empty. They were both miserable over the prospect of killing a member of their family, and the cat food seemed like a rational reason to postpone the inevitable.
I’ll keep this short. I know I’ve told this story before. In secret, Glenda and Brad each added new food to the bag. Their child was born without defects. And their cat eventually died of natural causes. That was almost ten years ago.
This past July, I was in Los Angeles to promote the release of Invisible Monsters Remix. As a local publicist drove me to the Skirball Cultural Center for my appearance I told her the story about the cat food. In response, she told me about friends of hers who’d bought a house with a gas fireplace. The house stunk every time they used the fireplace, and they quickly learned that the previous owners had owned a cat. A few days later, in Seattle, I told the fireplace story, and a stranger told me about switching on a gas fireplace and inadvertently injuring – not killing – a cat that was using the fireplace as a toilet.
All of this demonstrates a movement from the specific to the universal. The Phoenix story uses small, probable events – anecdotes I’ve collected -- to make the impossible seem inevitable. But a good story is greater than the sum of its anecdotes.
When I hear a remarkable anecdote, it stays in my mind. It’s entertaining so I repeat it. Each time people engage with the repeated story, they affirm its value by laughing or being shocked. The best anecdotes prompt listeners to relate their own similar stories. People are naturally competitive, so each new story raises the stakes.
The final version becomes almost mythic: The burning animal that destroys a household. We can see it in Mark Richard’s story Strays. We also see it in the David Sedaris essay about the mouse that runs from a burning pile of leaves. The event is horrible, but it’s a classic. The reason why we engage with the form so readily is because it’s familiar. The beginning of Phoenix is reinvented – toxoplasmosis and the food bag-clock – but the ending fulfills an ancient expectation: The cruel act will be punished.
In Phoenix, the foreground story of Rachel telephoning from Orlando was more personal. Whenever I travel for promotion I call home every night. Likewise, when my partner travels he also calls home. The first topic we always discuss is our dogs. Despite the fact that dogs can’t talk on the phone the absent person will usually shout “hello” while the at-home partner will hold the receiver for the dog to hear. To paraphrase Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn, you do participate in a certain level of shared insanity when you have a pet.
Under the stress of travel it wasn’t difficult to imagine that the dog wasn’t there. It never responds. It could easily be dead, and the at-home partner might be pretending it’s fine in order to save the feelings of the absent owner. I mentioned this paranoid idea to my partner, Mike, and he said it preyed on him, also. If I were gone on business and something happened to our dogs, would he spare my feelings by pretending? We were both a little bothered that we’d envisioned the same terrible, ethical crisis.
Discovering this mutual fear was the validation the story needed. After that I began to test the premise on friends – mostly fellow authors – who traveled a lot and went through the nightly ritual of phoning home to say “good night.” It didn’t take long for people to explore different aspects of the situation. Could you bribe your child to talk? Tickle him or her? As with the cat story, the situation with the stubborn child escalated. It became a classic Isaac-and-Abraham scene where a father is asked to stab a child at the request of a distant powerful entity. This act of sacrifice would be proof of love and devotion.
Again, we move from the small, personal truth toward the huge mythic catastrophe.
All these hoarded scraps of truth – toxo and cat food and the alienation of motel rooms -- weren’t worth anything individually, but it’s from these that the phoenix rose.
Last year, Mike was away when one of our dogs was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and had to be killed. It was a terrible day. I debated whether to tell him or to lie and insist the dog was fine until he got home. Finally I called and told the truth so that he could question the veterinarian and understand the gravity of the situation. It was awful. That dog which had sat in my lap while I wrote every book since Lullaby, now she’s reduced to a boxful of ashes.
Then Amy Grace Lloyd at Byliner asked me for a Halloween story.
I had this box of dog ashes I couldn’t discard. Suddenly – Voila – I had the story.
Twenty years of conversations contributed to Phoenix, just as talking to friends for decades had built Fight Club. In this way fiction isn’t so much about inventing something totally unique as it is about recognizing and reinterpreting a classic legend – the burning animal, Isaac and Abraham, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- so that it occurs as fresh and powerful for a new audience.
Once again, I thank Dennis for posting this. A shout-out and special thanks to everyone at Cinequest, especially the people who came to see Andy Mingo’s film “Romance.” It was fascinating to talk to filmmakers about the loneliness and obsession involved in their creative process. It’s a comfort to hear how we’re all forced to neglect friendships and family while we’re focused on producing a project. Yes, just like Rachel in the story.
If you’ve read Phoenix I thank you a million times over. If you have questions regarding this week’s “Unpacked” essay, I’ll do my best to answer them.
As with the first two essays, Chuck is taking fan questions on this latest essay. So if you have anything to contribute, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your question and if it gets selected, I'll post it here in a few days time with Chuck's attached answer.