Survivor is not Chuck Palahniuk’s best, but I see why the Cult, his legion of rabid fans, loves it. I also think I would have been more impressed had I read it earlier on in my Palahniuk arc, before I had struggled through the painful tedium of trashy books like Lullaby and Haunted.
There are many things this book does well, such as its critique of American celebrity worship (one of my very favorite hot topics in general) and self-improvement drug abuse (particularly steroids). However, there are also areas that fail, such as the many boring “tips” for household chores. This plot element is a tired one that Palahniuk has exhausted to death. In Snuff the same trick is exercised through constant, distracting discussions of porn industry “secrets” (such as taxonomies of techniques that porn starlets use to slow aging: breast-lifters; vaginal-numbing creams), and in Survivor Palahniuk uses the same gag again, not only with household tips but also with psychological disorders. Many people seem convinced that this constitutes “research” in the way Tom Wolfe used to demand of novelists, and they seem impressed by all that Palahniuk apparently learns and conveys for each book. But let’s call it what it is: bad writing that bashes the reader over the head with irrelevant facts about something only marginally connected to the narrative of the novel.
In any event, Survivor is a fun read. But if you’ve never read Palahniuk before, I’d say go for Rant first.
To shift gears: there is an entirely different way to look at this novel. I’d bet that most serious critics would agree Palahniuk is not a fabulous writer, and that his books are akin to the genre writing of prolific authors like Dean Koontz and John Grisham—writers who crank out books that sell like crazy and often get quickly bought up by film studios, but rarely achieve the status of “high lit.” Palahniuk and those of his ilk (think Dan Brown) are ultimately looked down on, whether fairly or unfairly.
But looking at Survivor through the lens of the New Criticism may partially redeem it. In a certain strain of cultural theory it is strictly the discussion a work generates that theorists deem more significant than the aesthetic success of the work itself. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley have stressed the importance of finding other ways to evaluate a literary work besides merely heaping it with praise that points to its aesthetic value.
Under this school of thought, Survivor becomes quite an interesting work, despite poor writing, because of the important sociological issues it raises that probe and question endemic institutions of the 90s and the Aughts. Specifically, Survivor criticizes and mocks three cultural obsessions specific to modern America: celebrity worship, steroid use, and religious zealotry. All of these, however, can fairly be grouped under one unified heading: pop culture, a term often used to cover everything from the media to merchandising to advertising, all of which Palahniuk’s protagonist becomes grossly involved in over the course of his saga.
Before analyzing the pop culture sendup that makes Survivor surprisingly relevant despite its aesthetic failures, one needs to first establish that the book indeed fails aesthetically. Of course that’s subjective, but, fuck it, I’d argue it’s objectively fair to state that Palahniuk’s characters are flat and clichéd. Yet this does not tend to make them uninteresting. Rather, they function as symbols of an idea, much like the characters in Poe’s famous short story “The Purloined Letter” (championed by lit theorists as the example of intentionally flat characters). On an aesthetic level, refusing to flesh out his characters makes his writing pale in comparison to the Faulkners and Hemingways of the world, but only in terms of the prose. Rather, the flatness of Tender Branson (and characters like Fertility Hollis, who serves as the typical “love interest,” or Tender’s brother Adam, the archetypal “villain”) merely highlights that Palahniuk intends to use him more as a representation of a social “problem” than as a deeply-constructed individual.
Fans of Palahniuk defend the author’s style by insisting that his short, simplistic sentences are meant to be so, and that this is what sets Palahniuk apart and makes him unique. It’s more likely that he’s just not a great writer, and pens these stories the only way he knows how. When making a point, he continually hammers home the same idea ad nauseam, and passages in Survivor can become gratingly overt in their intended effect, like when Tender explains how he likes to ignore the phone calls of his boss while he is cooking: “The speakerphone rings while I’m setting the lobsters. The speakerphone rings as I turn up the heat just another notch. The speakerphone rings while I wash my hands. The speakerphone rings while I go pour myself a cup of coffee and mix in cream and sugar.”
But as Wimsatt and Beardsley stress in their paper “The Affective Fallacy,” there is a danger in analyzing literature purely based on aesthetic appeal. Tender, who grows up among a severe religious cult akin to, say, an intense polygamist compound, is released into the modern world only to find that as he struggles to assimilate into society, his transition is complicated by the suicide of every other living cult member. As the last living member (they believe) of the cult, Tender becomes a media celebrity and, at the insistence of his agent, begins using steroids and popping hundreds of other pills, each of which has a different role in making him look better on television. Again, the repetitive, blunt prose overemphasizes the message, driving home the idea that the media and its creation of celebrities is a scary, appalling process. But it doesn’t matter; the message is conveyed and, if nothing else, does have one strong effect on the reader: it forces us to ponder how the media and celebrity worship impact our daily lives and our social habits.
Palahniuk suggests that what the team of media gurus, agents, publicists, and ad men do with Tender (which is to literally create a star from scratch, manipulating his every action) is exactly what the American media does with figures like movie stars, rappers, and other vulnerable people (a fine example is the complete transformation of country bumpkin Clay Aiken after going on American Idol). This creation of celebrity is itself an institution, and the danger is not only the mindless hero worship in which the media demands we engage, but the merchandising that spits out needless products, such as, in the case of this novel, Tender Branson action figures, cologne, and silverware.
The entire critique crystallizes in the final scene, in which Tender, Fertility, and Adam drive to the old Creedish habitat where Tender and Adam grew up, which has now been converted into the Tender Branson Sensitive Materials Sanitary Landfill (a giant dump for pornography). As they drive in, Palahniuk, using his typical repetitive prose, paints an image of literal mountains of garbage that have taken over the place and made the landfill a grotesque monument to commercialism and materialistic greed: “Everywhere I step, the magazines offer Horny Dreamgirls… And Girls Who Love Girls. And Bisexual Sex Parties… The tiny plastic feet of the Tender Branson dashboard statuette are sticking out of the mess… A magazine nearby says, Backdoor Gang Bang… A magazine says, Anal Fixation.” Palahniuk, despite whatever he might lack in prose skill, moves the reader uncompromisingly to shock and horror (his favorite effects) at the imagery of this huge landfill of pornographic material.
In addition, and more significantly, the book seems to ask, “This may be fiction, but could something like this really happen?” And sure enough this scenario very well could manifest itself in real-life America one day, and in suggesting this, the novel joins the ranks of other pop culture critiques like the movie Wall-E and the magazine Adbusters. It is indeed, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted in one review, “a dead-on sendup of the media, celebrity and pop culture” (a quote touted on the back cover, for obvious reasons). The novel is a relevant and important social criticism, and it refutes staid traditional lit crit that seeks to examine books solely based on the beauty of their prose. Palahniuk’s prose is nothing special, but with his biting commentary he creates something that has value for other reasons.