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.