The Earliest Documented Interview With Chuck Palahniuk
This feature comes courtesy of our Palahniuk academic expert Jeff Sartain. What makes it so unique and such fodder for our beloved Features sectopm, is that it's one of the oldest documented interviews with Chuck Palahniuk. I don't even think it's online anywhere (but here). It was conducted in the Spring of 1996, two seasons before the movie version of Fight Club would even hit theaters. Months before I would ever approach Chuck at a reading for Invisible Monsters about the idea for this website. But not only this, but this interview, and the things Chuck says in it just woke me up again to how inspirational he can be for people. I swear, after reading this piece, I feel like moving to Europe and just getting lost for a few years. Check it out and you'll see what I mean. Good stuff. Thanks Jeff, and thanks to Cult Member Undertow for the awesome transcription.
The Paradigm of Compromise
An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk
Printed in Columbia Journal of Literature and Art
Issue 26 - Spring 1996
Boswell: Voices of Contemporary Thinkers
"Chuck Palahniuk: Why Isn't He Budging?"
Palahniuk's Fight Club, winner of the 1997 Oregon Book Award for fiction, has been described as "A horrible, gruesome, gross, wonderful, strange, outrageous, fun, subversive, imaginative book." It chronicles a struggle for relief from the destitute monolithic life that has been created by America, Inc. This tightly told allegory is molded by precise prose that creates an original energy and vision. Fight Club's hero descends literally and figuratively into shadow, into the muck of violence, his old life disintegrating to a point beyond return. Chuck Palahniuk offers a fresh voice on the disempowerment, violence and spiritual destitution brought about by America's fetish for perfection bought with material accomplishment.
Boswell: When the narrator of Fight Club says, "Deliver me from being perfect and complete…May I never be content" what were some of your thoughts behind his comment?
Palahniuk: Once you're perfect and complete it's like those retired people who have a perfect lawn, a perfect house. Their life becomes about maintaining this static perfection. Things just sort of stop and they're no longer growing…because to make new things you have to break old things up to a certain degree. And once you get perfect, once you convince yourself things are perfect, then you stop growing and you stop evolving. It's sort of the death of things.
So many of us when we turn 18 think, 'Get married. Get a job. Get a house - house of kids.' And we're so anxious to be settled down so quickly and get all the accoutrements - you know, dining room, living room, living room set - of a finished perfect life that we shut our lives down, clap them down really tight and really small really early on. And no one takes the time to look and see what's out there and build something better.
Boswell: One of your characters says, "We don't have a great war in our generation or a great depression. But we do. We have a war of the spirit. A great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression."
Palahniuk: You know this is one of those things that seems to be easier to describe by describing the symptoms. People spend more time escaping than they do fulfilling.
Maria Muldower was interviewed by National Public Radio a couple of weeks ago and said that cooking and gardening once were in our culture [that] entertainment has now become.
Instead of the husband phoning the wife and saying, 'What should I bring home for dinner?' he phones the wife and says, 'What video should I bring?' The dinner-thing is too often already taken care of by pre-prepared foods.
We have an enormous need right now for entertainment in our culture. And I think most of that springs from escaping what lives we're all forced to lead. It seems to be - Do the job without really knowing why. And just keep doing it without really knowing why. People aren't very fulfilled by their lives anymore.
Boswell: Do you think it was different in the past?
Palahniuk: Yeah. I think in the past, people had a larger purpose. They identified with a larger purpose, whether it was their church or their nation…or their survival.
We've sort of grown beyond our survival and many people don't really identify with a larger cause.
Survival is handled, so what is there now?
Taking a Punch
Boswell: The passage I just quoted continued, "We have a class of young strong men and women and they want to give their lives to something." Do you think people need to sacrifice and give themselves to something?
Palahniuk: Right, to identify with a larger purpose, to say 'It's not enough that I just live, my life has to be about this. The purpose of my life is this.'
People want that because we're growing old with longer and longer life spans, and then come to the end of our lives, look back and say, 'OK, basically, I paid the bills.' But they have not had one big thing they ever contributed to. It's just incredibly bleak. It's so purposeless, so useless.
Boswell: In Fight Club people fight one another to get in touch with what it means to feel alive, or as you say, to feel powerful.
Palahniuk: In a lot of the media, you are taught that you are shot once, there's no blood, you fall down dead. You get hit, you're knocked out. And that's not the case.
It is so difficult to knock someone unconscious, or to kill someone. People would be appalled at how much effort or mess it takes to do either.
And so we are afraid of pain or assault because we associate it with instant closure.
Boswell: How much of that is the result of television?
Palahniuk: I think it is a large result of television because television has sort of cleaned up and neated up violence. Movies do that a lot too.
The idea that you can take a punch and it's just a punch is not in TV or movies. You're not dead; you're not crippled.
You are capable of enduring so much more than you think you are capable of, that you never dreamed you were capable of. These things we perceive as gigantic risks really are not!
Boswell: And right next to violence is death. We also need to come into contact with death to be in touch with life.
Palahniuk: Right. Now in our culture we've pushed death about as far away as it can be. And sentimentalized and distorted and hidden it. We've become a culture that denies death so vehemently that we have no power against it.
Nobody's died in my family in decades, so the idea of someone dying leaves us all completely powerless because nobody even remembers what it's like to have someone in their family die.
Boswell: If violence is one way of finding your true limits and of moving toward this edge between life and death, do you think violence is necessary or is it just one way to approach it?
Palahniuk: It's funny that during this whole Fight Club thing, nobody has ever asked me about the support groups in the book. I worked as a volunteer in a hospice, an AIDS hospice. And I would come out of there feeling so good, it was like a night in Fight Club.
No matter how crappy my life was, no matter how bad I felt my problems were, I would come out of that hospice feeling like the king of the world. Yes, my car's broken down. Yes, I haven't paid my bills. Yes, I hate my job, but I'm doing so good. You know, I felt so good after working a shift as a volunteer.
I would say that's another way of feeling a real presence of life and getting some perspective. If people were doing WPA work, where they were somewhere on a large effort away from their home, in a whole different paradigm, I think that would be a really incredible thing for them.
I think that is why I think organizations like the Peace Corps are good for people.
Boswell: Yes, living abroad usually makes you feel more alive and aware because everything is always so new and different and perplexing. You don't know what's going on half the time.
Palahniuk: Yeah, exactly! Being not sure of your place in the world, being off balance, relying on your own skills for getting by. To be with not knowing.
It seems to be a big thing right now: our inability to be with the unknown.
Boswell: Like death.
Palahniuk: Yes. We are afraid of death because we have no familiarity with it. We are afraid of many things because we have just never gone out and met them.
The characters in Fight Club had to be extreme and not compromise. I think in our day-to-day lives we have to get out of the paradigm of compromise in which most of us find ourselves. Whether it's involving an awareness of death or whether it's pushing ourselves to achieve new appreciation of our capabilities. We need to know we are capable of so much more than we ever dreamed of.
Interview Transcribed by Undertow