Chuck Palahniuk's fiction wraps around the lives of characters cocooned in such obscure self-imposed limitations that his devout readers immediately surrender a portion of reality. Stranger Than Fiction promises to let fans live in the real world but after a thorough lashing of Palahniuk reality, any subsequent foray into Diary or Survivor or Fight Club betrays that the line in the sand between that which is real and that which is not is blown across the dune of novel like a vestigial appendage long defunct.
Palahniuk's opening to Stranger Than Fiction is a Zen-like diatribe on balance, redefining that line between the worlds of fiction and nonfiction. Palahniuk carves very definite borders around his own cycles of fact, fiction, alone, together and takes care to identify each of these states of opposition individually. It's as if warning his readers that what is to follow is the antithesis of what we normally expect of his work. And that line of demarcation Palahniuk uses to separate fact and fiction is convincing until we turn the page and begin the section People Together with "Testy Festy."
The raunchy first essay/story/account about the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival in Missoula, Montana, may make even sex-jaded editors at Playboy blush. As for the reader, "Testy Festy" immediately casts doubt on the veracity of such so-called nonfiction and without a moment of hesitation, "Testy Festy" assures Palahniuk's fiction fans that Stranger Than Fiction will par--if not birdie--any of his novels.
Defiantly divided into People Together, Portraits and Personal, the purpose of the sections seems as practical as it does unnecessary. The essays of People Together run the gamut from the eccentric stories of castle builders in the Northwest in "Confessions in Stone" to the tales of pain and determination of wrestlers, the insanity of combine demolition derby drivers and the rigor of submariner life. None of the essays in People Together has the shock that "Testy Festy" inflicts upon readers, and despite a few yawns through "Where Meat Comes From" and "Demolition," we read on knowing there will be another story to devour every piece of our attention. Palahniuk knows we'll read from front to back so the stories have been carefully ordered to sate our palates just when things begin to get a bit dry. After plodding through a few modestly intriguing pieces, all five pages of "My Life as a Dog" guarantee we could close Stranger Than Fiction satisfied by Palahniuk's skill in nonfiction.
Portraits paints a verbal canvas with broad strokes of dialogue only in some instances and combines the color of Palahniuk's personal opinion and experience with that of his interviewee. Though Palahniuk puts mega-celebrities Juliette Lewis and Marilyn Manson under the scrutiny of his pen, it's not the vision of Marilyn Manson spewing forth social commentary perched upon black carpet reading his Tarot that is most moving in Portraits. Rather, it's another five-pager squeezed among such Hollywood giants that procures the most admiration. "Not Chasing Amy" is Palahniuk's appropriate homage to minimalist writer Amy Hempel that inspires readers to pick up Hempel and begs writers to wrangle the craft in the way Palahniuk promises Hempel can.
Looking more like a postscript to the collection of Stranger than a section itself, Personal creeps out of the shadows of its predecessors to run away with the show. In less than 40 pages Palahniuk lines up seven little windows into the reality he calls his life and though it feels a bit voyeuristic to be reading about his father's murder or his use of the Lip Enhancer, it's some of the best material in Stranger. It's the one-liners of Personal that really stick in your mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter, smacking on your reader's admiration, making it difficult to speak. Chew on nuggets like, "What's going out is the cathartic transgressive novel," or "What's left is proof we can create reality," and you'll stumble upon the reason Palahniuk writes himself straight into writer hall of fame.
Happening upon the last page of Stranger comes as a surprise as the personal quality of the last few essays endears us to Palahniuk in the same way his novels connect us to his characters. We're so intertwined with the character or with true experiences of Palahniuk's life that we forget it's a finite and two-dimensional relationship and are unprepared for the separation anxiety caused by closing the book one last time. As for nonfiction, Palahniuk proves himself master of the idea that oftentimes, life truly is stranger than fiction.