When authors intrude: Chuck Palahniuk and J.K. Rowling

Posted on September 1, 2008


I recently read Chuck Palahniuk’s second novel, Survivor. Although I didn’t think it was as fabulous as friends had promised, I did enjoy it, and I think I’m ready to admit that I would have loved it more if I had read it before I read so many of his other books. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I feel like all Palahniuk’s books are the same story, written in the same exact style, with virtually the same protagonist, just slightly different. And I know that many other readers and critics feel the same way. But this was his second book, and had I read it when it came out, years ago, I think I would have loved it.

That being said, I’ve discovered something online that has to do with the ending of the book, and demands comment.

I would warn you of plot spoilers now, but this book is eight years old, so I think it’s okay for me to “spill the beans.”

When I reached the end of the book, I thought it was pretty clear that Tender Branson dies. He says he’s up in the airplane, that all four engines have flamed out, that he’s now waiting to plummet toward the earth, and that he knows he will die.

But a buddy of mine who is a major Chuck fan told me that Palahniuk’s official web site claims otherwise. He said, “You didn’t read the real ending?” I visited the web site, which is chuckpalahniuk.net, and found its section on Survivor. According to the man himself:

The end of Survivor isn’t nearly so complicated. It’s noted on page 7(8?) that a pile of valuable offerings has been left in the front of the passenger cabin. This pile includes a cassette recorder. Even before our hero starts to dictate his story — during the few minutes he’s supposed to be taking a piss — he’s actually in the bathroom dictating the last chapter into the cassette recorder. It’s just ranting, nothing important plot-wise, and it can be interrupted at any point by the destruction of the plane. The minute the fourth engine flames out, he starts the cassette talking, then bails out, into Fertility’s waiting arms (she’s omniscient, you know). The rest of the book is just one machine whining and bitching to another machine. The crash will destroy the smaller recorder, but the surviving black box will make it appear that Tender is dead.

What kind of bullshit is this? There’s no evidence in the text for this “two tape recorder” thing, and as for Tender surviving, I just didn’t see it that way. Yes, Tender mentions that there are parachutes (and so naturally you’re thinking, wait, he doesn’t have to die) but he also says on the final page that although Fertility told him there was a way for him to live, he’s too stupid to figure it out. All signs point to death. But Mr. Palahniuk envisions a different ending and has posted it on this web site.

My point is that even if the ending Chuck proposes is in fact meant to be the clear ending presented in the book, it might not have looked that way to many readers, and it’s not Palahniuk’s place to present to us after the fact, definitively, the ending that he feels happens.

The beauty of literature is that so many different people can read a single novel and react in completely different ways. In fact, in some cases where an ending is unclear, each reader might have their own interpretation of a book’s meaning or resolution.

And in the case of Survivor, the ending is especially ambiguous, which (nicely) leaves it open to interpretation. But when Palahniuk posts his own perception of the ending online, it ruins it. The issue of authorial intention is often a hazy one, but the ‘rub’ here is that if Palahniuk believed so firmly that his protagonist lives at the end of the book, then he should have made that more obvious in the text. He didn’t, and to simply tell people that Tender survives is to cross a line, and force his own ending (one that may or may not have evidence in the text) on the reader.

I felt similarly last October, when JK Rowling decided to announce that her beloved character Albus Dumbledore is gay. In fact, I was rather pissed off. I have absolutely nothing against gay people, and I consider myself a strong supporter of gay rights. But in this case, her declaration was inappropriate, and unfair to readers.

This all happened right after the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, in which Dumbledore dies. The announcement came during a hugely attended public reading at Carnegie Hall, when some innocent child asked during the Q&A, “Does Dumbledore ever find love?” Rowling answered matter-of-factly, “Dumbledore is gay,” to which the crowd erupted in shocked oohs, delighted aahs, and then raucous applause at her bold courage.

I was angry because it wasn’t her place to simply add a detail to her fictional world after the fact—a detail that was never, ever included or (in my opinion) even suggested in any of the books.

I guess Rowling just couldn’t keep her mouth shut. I like the way the Salon article (linked above) puts it, in the headline: “Authors like J.K. Rowling just can’t stop telling their own stories.” Indeed, the books were already written, and if she realized late in the game that she had wanted to make Dumbledore gay in order to be daring, or modern, or impress people, too bad. She should have done so in the books, but she didn’t, and so it was ridiculous of her to cross that line and force a detail on readers which many of us simply don’t agree with or choose to accept. And that’s not about homophobia. It’s about enjoying six long novels and then having the personal identity of a character altered outside of the text by a loud-mouthed author.

J.K. says A.D. is gay. Click for source.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I feel that the entire story of a novel begins and ends in the novel itself. It is not, and should never be, an author’s place to add information on their own, via the internet or public appearances. Once a book is published and out there, the story is done. Set in stone. If they have in their own imagination a specific interpretation of the characters or story, they need to keep it to themselves. And it doesn’t matter that he or she wrote the thing; they still shouldn’t get to abuse that authorial power by announcing new endings or details.

What do you think?

[UPDATE, 11/10/09] Just to give another example that I found recently after finishing Pale Fire and then checking out the Wiki page: Vladimir Nabokov said in an interview that Kinbote (the narrator) committed suicide after finishing the book. But that doesn’t happen in the novel, and we have no reason to believe that happens, so the critic Michael Wood has stated, “This is authorial trespassing, and we don’t have to pay attention to it.” See, it’s a real thing!

Posted in: DBR Blog