Review: Survivor, Chuck Palahniuk

When my work book club met to discuss Empire Falls (which, oops, I never reviewed), one of our members expressed her dissatisfaction with the low level of sexiness in any of the books we have read so far, and her intention to choose for us something sexy like Anais Nin for the next book club book. Instead she ended up selecting three very unsexy options, of which we selected — I suspect — the least sexy option of all, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor.

I have discovered that I have very, very little patience with ennui in literature and film. If a character is not interested in things, it is difficult for me to be interested in that character. Survivor begins with Tender Branson preparing to crash a plane, empty except for him, into a mountain, and speaking into the recorder of the plane’s black box, to tell his life story. As the last survivor of a cult whose members mostly killed themselves, Tender became an object of frantic interest and devotion in America. The book, which counts backwards to the moment of the plane’s crash, tells his story.

Basically Tender is very ennui-ridden without even the benefit of an interesting backdrop, his cult being the most boring fictional cult ever. He has spent most of his life as a cleaner of one kind or another, a sufferer of one mental illness or another, and an occasional suicide counselor of the sort that urges people to go ahead and kill themselves. There are predictable suicidal-people jokes; predictable DSM jokes; predictable religious cult jokes; and stupendously predictable cult of celebrity jokes. Yawn. (That yawn may be my yawn, or maybe it is Tender Branson’s yawn. He is, after all, plagued by great ennui.)

By the time the book reached the point at which Tender becomes a famous religious figure and faith healer, I was already a bit sick of it. But the satirical treatment of celebrity made me roll my eyes so much I probably dislocated them. I think part of this is a function of the time I live in vs. the time the book was written: at this point, if you’re going to poke fun at fake celebrities and reality TV, it’s not enough to be like, “Celebrities! Those folks are superficial, amirite?” Twelve years on, we’ve heard that a zillion times. There has to be more to it now.

I don’t want to make it sound like I found nothing of worth in this book. There were moments and lines that I quite liked. It’s just, y’all, I don’t know. I just didn’t care for it. The jokes never landed, and I hated all the characters. I think there could be a good book written about the last surviving member of a suicide cult, but this wasn’t that book, is what I’m saying. The end was ambiguous, which meant I liked it better than I’d have liked an unambiguous ending, but although I liked the fact of the ambiguity, I didn’t like the ending itself. I thought it was silly. Boo.

Okay, guys, for September’s book club (or October’s if someone else at work book club desperately wants to choose the September book), I want to suggest three options, and I want to suggest all women, and I want to suggest some authors of color. So I am thinking Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (for my coworker who wants a bit of sex in our book club), and then two of the following five books:

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Leaving Atlanta, Tayari Jones
The Long Song, Andrea Levy or Small Island, Andrea Levy (but not both)
Glorious, Bernice McFadden

I want to read all of these books so it is hard for me to decide. Tell me in the comments which two I should suggest. Bear in mind, we’re not necessarily looking for the best book. We’re looking for a book that will yield plenty of fruitful discussion about the Issues and Themes and Structures. Everyone enjoyed Empire Falls but we didn’t have as much to discuss in that one.

They read it also:

The Octogon
Reading  Matters
Ace and Hoser
Books ‘n’ Border Collies
Kristina’s Favorites
Book Minx

Did I miss yours?

17 thoughts on “Review: Survivor, Chuck Palahniuk

  1. I’d never associate sexy with Palahniuk’s books. Blood, yes. Sexy, no.

    And Half of a Yellow Sun is made of awesome. And I do believe there’s some sex in there. Not sexy sex, though. More like sex just happens as part of life. Lots of different characters that would make for good discussion, too.

  2. Sounds like one to miss! Which is a shame because the basic premise sounds pretty interesting.

    As for your potential bookclub books, my bookclub has read Half of a Yellow Sun and Small Island
    Small Island has a fair amount of humour in it . I enjoyed it more than Half of a Yellow Sun (which certainly has some sex in it!) and the other members of bookclub did too.

  3. Half of a Yellow Sun! Not only is it excellent, but it will give you hours and hours worth of discussion material. And the ending! You could talk about the ending alone for days.

  4. I would think Small Island would be good and it’s a very popular book club book. Sorry about the Chuck P. (I’m bound to get that surname wrong!), but the last member of a suicide cult rather cuts down the possible plotlines….. Sexy is a tricky one, isn’t it? I mean, you might have a book with sex in it but it isn’t all that sexy, or a book without a lot of real action that nevertheless remains erotic. You could always go for Henry and June by Anais Nin or Cheri by Colette. Angela Carter’s a good choice.

  5. I haven”t read it (yet) but Glorious sounds pretty intriguing – and it has the whole racial issues thing to add to discussion, plus it has such a fascinating time/place locus. And one of the reviews I read said it was all about redemption! You know I love a book about redemption.

  6. Me too – hate ennui in books! Especially if the protagonist is rich and bored. I just want to hit him with a super-reinforced tank with the 50-cal guns. On the other hand, sometimes there is actually an excuse. I’m now reading The Last Werewolf and the protagonist has been alive 200 years, and “seen it all.” It’s all sort of a trope so the author can contemplate the meaning of life when there doesn’t seem to be any meaning. It just wouldn’t work with the average person having a “mid-life crisis,” which this author is smart enough to recognize. Okay, so the werewolf has an excuse. But otherwise, my eyeballs would get dislocated as well, although the last time this happened, with a handsome rich 40-something guy being bored and wanting an affair to get some interest in his life, I had to make it a DNF since I couldn’t get to the character to kill him. Thus, a metaphoric murder…

  7. I have never really liked Palahniuk, and have always found his books a bit strange with a sort of sordid feel to them. I have read a handful of his work, but at times it varied between disturbing, to boring, to…well, greasy. I have sort of given up on him after he put out the the one about the aging starlet. I don’t imagine that I would have liked this book a whole lot.

    For your next read, I would recommend Small Island, which I loved, or Glorious, which was a great read as well.

  8. I feel the same way about ennui in literature. It’s hard for me to understand a character who can find nothing to be passionate about in this fascinating, complex world. On the other hand, that kind of thing might have appealed to me when I was a teen.

  9. When I read and hated a Palahniuk book recently (did you know it’s pronounced Paula-nick and I’d been saying it all wrong in my head, geez) lots of people gave me recommendations for others I might like more. But your review suggests that I would not like any of them any better, and I am very grateful.

  10. We read a Chuck (I’m not even going to attempt his last name) for book club a few years ago and it was good but not an author I’d ever reach for again.

    I vote for Glorious and Small Island!

  11. I’ve not read any of your suggestions except the Carter, which I didn’t entirely enjoy, but I think it would be great for discussion – weird characters, orphans, giant puppets, a controlling uncle… The heroine’s a bit wet (which surprised me, because I thought Carter was meant to be a feminist author) and the ending was… odd.

  12. Suggest Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie…mainly because I want to read your review :)

    And how did you like Empire Falls? I liked the book all right, but it didn’t really stick with me for very long.

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