Art, what a thing, huh? Where does its value lie? Does it actually mean anything? Is the context in which it’s created important? Do we have to flagellate, physically or psychically, to create anything of substance? Is it more important to understand one’s own creation, or is the potential impact it might have on a patron more important? Does everything we have to do matter? Are we echoes of the past, manifested to carry on a collective cause? Am I asking too many questions? Have I had too much coffee today?
Diary is the sixth published novel by Chuck Palahniuk, and by this point in his career, I think he’s really gotten a hold of his distinct voice. All of the promise that was displayed in his earlier novels – Lullaby, Fight Club, Invisible Monsters – has started to manifest itself. It has a lot to do with his sharp prose and clarity of messaging. Yes, there are still moments of heavy-handed allegory, but this time around it’s folded into the fabric of the narrative in a much less distracting way, because rather than the sub-text being the focus, the characters take center stage this time. They aren’t just empty vessels made to be filled by our subconscious awareness of archetypes. They feel distinct, complete with their own points of view and desires. Everybody wants something, maybe even selfishly, and that gives them a life.
The story is told from the first person and presented to us as a diary of sorts, which, given the title, makes sense. It plays pretty fast and loose with this framing device, as it feels like it drifts back and forth between formality and things that sound more like actual diary entries from chapter to chapter. It’s something I noticed while I was reading, but by the end, I felt like it justified itself pretty well considering the novels last minute revelations.
This being a Palahniuk story, there is a mystery at the center of everything, and what the story does is basically start towards the end, another Palahniuk trope, and fills in the blanks as we go. We learn about the main character, Misty Marie Kleinman, her life as an art student, the relationship she has with her husband Peter, whose now in a coma after a failed suicide attempt. We learn about her daughter Tabbi, their relationship with her, and how she came to reside on Waytansea Island, the home of a wealthy set of people being inundated with tourists and their hunger for homogenization and consumerism.
I really enjoyed the way the mystery unfolded. It’s constantly inviting you to question motivations and the world that the characters envelop, just giving you enough to start your theory engines up. At about mid-way through the book, I kind of had most of it figured out, but this time around it didn’t feel lazy or contrived. It felt like a well-considered set-up, rather than cloying proselytization. It was a pleasant surprise because often in Palahniuk books it feels like he runs out of steam by the last 50 pages or so. Sometimes it feels like he’s saying “Okay, I think you get it. Time to really lay it all out for you.” Diary still has a little bit of that, towards the end everything concerning the surface plot is pretty much just told to Misty. Like, someone just literally tells her what’s going on, but I found it less annoying than I did in Lullaby, mostly because it seemed appropriately obvious, and the story had more to offer than a shocking twist and heavy-handed allegory.
The real meat of this yarn has to do with artists, what constitutes effective inspiration, and how art is perceived by the world at large. How even the most beautiful and “perfect” works can be used for things that the artist never intended, and considering that, how much responsibility the artist has to accept for those interpretations. It’s an age-old conversation when it comes to any and all art, and it felt incredibly prescient in today’s world, as we’re fed repurposed and remixed works to serve as propaganda. We have a habit of taking something benign and pure and running it through our perception of the world until it means what we want it to. And if we can’t do that, if we can’t find something in a piece, does that mean it has no objective value?
The novel also asserts an argument about objectively “good” art. Perfect angles, perfect circles, perfect symmetry, perfect vision. Imagination so powerful that it can conjure things more real than what’s in front of us. It deals with this concept by presenting the idea that artists have a kind of shared spirit, that has moved through the ages inhabiting a person every once in awhile. Whether that person wants it or not. There’s some fatalism at play here and it’s out of the inhabited’s control, but maybe there are identifiers. Maybe there’s an actual continuity to it all. The trick is to recognize it, and once you’ve done that, figuring out where the real “power” lies. Does it lie with the progenitor of the work or those that experience it? If the works become exploited does that detract from its inherent beauty, from it’s “value?”
It also talks about suffering as the main catalyst for inspiration. Is pain what brings out an artist’s best work? Does the need to expel their demons make the work purer? If an artist were to use their work as a kind of therapy, it would be reasonable to assume that the product would be representative of their subconscious and the only way they would have gained access to their latent talent was through their suffering. Without those experiences they wouldn’t have anything to say, I guess would be a way to put it. The question at play in the novel has to do with whether or not those experiences have to be organic. Aspects of it reminded me a lot of a french horror film, Martyrs. It’s an incredibly brutal flick, so watch at your own discretion, but if you have seen it, you probably get where I’m coming from.
To go any deeper would be heading into some serious spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that there. Just to be clear, though, it does offer up more than just questions. There are some truths to be found, and even though they’re a little bit messy, just like everything in life, I was pretty content.
The other aspect that permeates the novel is something that seems to be near and dear to Palahniuk’s heart and that is the issue of commercial consumerism. The original denizens of Waytansea have been beset upon by industry, basically. With a boom in tourism comes the need for homogenized accouterments and that often means the death of charm and identity. There’s such a weird relationship that exists between tourists and tourist spots. Yeah, we all intimate that we want to get away from it all and experience new things, in unique places, but it’s often a disingenuous sentiment. As soon as we can’t find a Chili’s, and we’re in danger of having to deal with local cuisine, we lose our minds. We crave those corporate identifiers because we’re comforted by them. We could vacation on Mars, but as long as there was a McDonald’s and a Coca-Cola billboard, we wouldn’t feel so out of place. Sometimes we want everywhere to be the same, we want the world to exist in an understandable continuity. We want to be able to enjoy a beautiful, crystal clear, blue ocean on some beach in Mexico while enjoying a McDouble. Right or wrong, it’s how we’re trained to be, as we’re inundated with forced associations. Milkshakes mean family. Waffles mean community. Disinfectants mean unity.
Palahniuk could have used this as window dressing, those elements usually exist in his books as such, but here he directly incorporates it into the machinations of the plot. The difference here is that he does it sparsely enough that it never feels super heavy-handed. Even though it pays off in an obvious way, it feels like he really earns it this time around.
You can tell he really likes these characters and, while never agreeing with their methods, he opines along with them. He shares their frustration and concerns. It was nice to see him put aside some of his nihilistic tendencies, as there is some actual hope through the tragedy that these characters go through. It even kind of caught me off guard. He really loves Misty Kleinman and, in her, he fights back against a fatalistic world. She may be one of his most well-realized creations. She’s not a device for his perspective and monologues, and is allowed to discover, and we get to go on the personal journey with her.
I was really pleasantly surprised by Diary. It actually made me excited to read some more of his stuff, which is good because after Lullaby I was kind of regretting this whole reassessing him as an author venture. Most of what I’ve read comes from early on in his career – other than Snuff, which put me off of him entirely until now – but if this is the kind of stuff I’m in store for, Palahniuk understanding his own voice and how to subvert it, then I’m all in. Time will tell, I suppose, but as it is now, Diary is definitely worth your time. It would be a great beach read, so pull out a blanket, head to the sun and water, grab a few Mcdoubles, and enjoy.
Next up during the Summer of Palahniuk: Rant
Check out my previous entry in this series, Lullaby