Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The Palahniuk Effect: "Guts"
I'm going to introduce you to the most viscerally powerful short story I've ever read. Flat out. But - first I need you do a couple of things.
For your own safety, I mean.
From this moment on you should be sitting in an easy chair or maybe laying down is even better. Padding. So you won't hurt yourself.
A glass of water nearby. Maybe a small waste can and a roll of paper towels would also be prudent. Last, if possible, a spouse or a reliable friend who is good in an emergency. Do not have someone read it to you aloud while driving a car or operating heavy machinery.
We will assume you have done these things and proceed.
The last person recorded to have fainted during a public reading of "Guts" was on May 28, 2007 at the public library of Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. Strictly speaking he didn't faint as a result of the story but as a consequence of running for the exit, fainting in mid stride and hitting his head on the way to the floor. He was one of five who dropped during that reading. In Milan Italy a professional actor read the translation aloud in excellent Italian and entire rows went down as though they'd been machine gunned. Thus far a total of 73 people have officially fainted during public readings of "Guts" at least until people stopped counting. That's what books can do for you folks.
Damn I wish I'd written it.
Stop reading this, I'm talking to you there, go to the link I'm going to give you and read "Guts". It only takes a few minutes, its not a long story at all. In fact here's how it begins.
Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.”
From “Guts” Chuck Palahniuk
Here is the link to "Guts" a short story by my literary hero Chuck Palahniuk. You can read it for free. Off you go, now. Come back after you pull yourself together.
From this moment on the blog will be divided into two camps. The readers with “Guts’, and the "Guts" virgins.
The readers are those who obediently went to the link and followed through and survived more or less intact. The virgins are those who did not take it seriously and didn’t check it out at all, and those who did and found themselves unable to finish it. I fall into both camps. The first time I read it I couldn't finish it. I thought I was tough. I was not. I went back and finished it the second time, both times cringing in my seat, chewing my thumb and laughing my ass off insanely at the funny parts.
Now you Guts virgins - go back and read it. Go on. Get outta here. You're missing a thing of hideous beauty. Come back when you know something. You will note that I have not told you anything about the story premise or what it's about. Nor will I. But I would like to talk about the "Palahniuk Effect", how the great man does what he does so well.
The genre Palahniuk writes in and maybe some of us also write in without knowing it had a name, is “transgressive fiction”. This is a kissing cousin of pulp fiction which walks a fine line on what is forbidden in commercial fiction and often cheerfully vaults over it. This would include stories that are potentially offensive either on a moral level such as “Lolita”, which on its surface after all is a sexual affair between a man and a twelve year old girl, or a publishable level such as “Guts” (The first time it was submitted to Playboy magazine it was refused as “too disturbing”. When the editor attended a reading at Union Square Library in New York during which a man was carted off in an ambulance, he was impressed. It appeared in Playboy in 2004). Transgressive Fiction can also include gay erotica, BDSM stories, flagellation and so on. It concerns characters who feel confined by the moral conventions of society and in the course of the story break out by doing luridly illicit or in the case of “Guts”, incredibly dumb things.
"Guts" is told from the first person POV in a very specific way. Palahniuk has several essays on writing at his web site which I have lately been studying on my knees. He has a lot to say about the crafting of "Guts". Any story opens with a particular problem for the writer, which is the early establishing of authority with the reader. This is connected with the “suspension of disbelief ”. The reader has to trust where you’re leading them, no matter how weird it is, and be willing to give your characters the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true in the case of the first person point of view, with all of its intimacy offered to the reader right up front in the voice of the narrator. Palahniuk explains that this can be done by either heart or head.
To establish authority by heart means to speak of yourself in a way that speaks straight to the reader, without putting on airs. You might do this by revealing early on something that doesn’t make you look all that good. Something which is more of the honest fool then the hero. You have to establish this as quickly as possible, in the first few sentences.
For instance this is how Mark Twain starts off Huckleberry Finn:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
The reader likes Huckberry's voice. He sounds like a straight forward kid.
Or this, from the opening of Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”:
“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”.
He sounds like a dubious character, but someone worth knowing. You wonder what the deal is with his mother too.
Imagine being on a date with someone who only talks constantly about what a great person he/she is and how lucky you are to be with them. There won’t be a second date. The same with a reader. By showing your warts early on you are being vulnerable, holding out your hand to a certain trust and intimacy with the reader. You don’t have to be a good person or even a very nice person. Just somebody worth knowing.
The other way is “establishing authority” with the head. This is in fact the way Palahniuk starts out “Guts”. Now that I think of it, that is also the way in which I have introduced this blog entry. This is usually done by listing a series of details, either technical or emotional details that show the reader your narrator has been where he/she describes and knows what they’re talking about from experience and knowledge. A handy example would be my own Nixie at the beginning of the story “The Lady and the Unicorn” which establishes authority with the head method:
“. . . Blood has a range of taste, as scent has a range of aromas. Blood has a high level taste and an under taste. It is a blending of elements like music. This is also the way of scent. The under aroma tells you there is a trail and betrays to you the direction. If the scent becomes fresher you are following the creature that produced it, so you must use the under scent to know which direction is older and which is newer. It is as though the air were filled with singing voices and you are picking out from the choir the sound of a single voice. The high scent will tell you the individual, the condition of the individual, if it is injured or sick, horny or filled with fear. It will tell you how to catch him, where he is likely to run to. To acquire the high scent the animal, or myself, must pause to commune with the air and pay attention. Close the eyes. Hold the nose still and just so. Let the night air speak. It is the same with the deep taste of blood, except that scent is on the move, and if you are tasting the blood – well. It is no longer on the move.”
That opening paragraph is basically a grocery list of details to give the sensory impression of how it would be to have a natural predator’s extraordinary sense of smell, which was a recurring theme in the story. The narrator’s quiet voice speaks from experience without putting on airs other than a simple sense of delight. There is never a moment where the narrator tells you how dangerous she is. Still, by the end of the paragraph she doesn’t have to.
The next is the establishment of pattern and motif. "Guts" is in some ways a long detailed list. It is a story in three acts, giving the details of three scenes or events of increasing . . . effect . . we'll call it. "Guts" is also based on true stories. Palahniuk swears it.Palahniuk explains in the back story commentary that he acquired these stories over time while researching his novel “Choke”. He could have assembled them in any pattern, but arranged them in an ascending order. The motif of the story is actually based on the theme of holding the breath which begins the story. Holding the breath is a metaphor for things that exist between family members that are too awful or ridiculous to talk about, and waiting in suspense for those things to be revealed. This is the recurring pattern that keeps resounding after each event is described. Let’s talk about that description.
He has established trust, if not sympathy, between the narrator and the reader. The events unfold. The sensory description, which is also a critical element to erotica writing, is based on the minimal depiction of a single ultra-realistic detail. The kind of detail only the narrator would know. That carefully chosen detail is a note that brings the side elements into the light. Palahniuk advises “When a normal person has a headache, they take aspirin. When a writer has a headache, he takes notes.” You try to find a way of conveying the experience of a headache, not just the bland statement that a headache exists. You don’t say the beer was delicious. You describe the beer as malty and bitter and cold. The reader decides if that’s delicious or not, not you. If you are describing a desperate man crossing an unlit railroad yard in the dead of night, a man who is obsessively afraid of the dark – and I have written that story – you don’t say “It was dark.” Hell. We know that. Instead you describe the man dropping to the ground in a fit. Digging his fingernails in the dirt, until they hurt. Biting the dirt with his teeth and weeping shamefully. Describe how it feels to suffocate with brainless panic and then seeing just in front of his eyes the moonlight glinting off a single piece of broken bottle glass.
Moonlight. Glass. Specifically from a bottle. One piece.
That makes it feel dark, and feel is what you want. Palahniuk says the line that seemed to send most of the fainters spiraling to the floor is the one with the words “corn and peanuts”. That’s a very specific detail known only to the narrator until he reveals it in a way that brings the scene home and nails it.
Now, if the image of corn and peanuts isn’t turning you green at this moment, and maybe for the rest of your life, it’s because you’re a Guts-Virgin.
Come over here, little virgin.
Come over here. Gonna tighten' up your wig for you.
Come sit close to me, baby. No. More close. Touching close.
Now. What we’re gonna do. It’s all up to you. Won’t make you do nuthin’ you don’t want. Good?
You got a little mouse for me, sweetie. Let’s see that little mouse you got.
Oh. Oh isn’t that beautiful. Your mama gave you the sweetest beautiful mouse. Look what you’ve been hiding from me all this time.
How is that mouse . . . There. Isn’t that nice? You like that?
Put your finger there on the left button. Just keep it there like that ‘till I say.
That’s the way. Feel nice? You like that? You bet you like it. Bet your mouse like that. Bet your mama like that.
See that down there? No, lower down. See that?
Well, that’s my URL. Ever seen one of those before? Yeah? You’re not so innocent like you look.
What you’re gonna do for me is put your little pointer there, baby, right there and give my URL a nice little squeeze. That’s how it’s done. Move it right down there. Do it just for me. Then I’ll know you love me good, sugar.
You’re going good. Oh that’s sweet how you do that. Oh that’s so good. I can watch you move your mouse all night long. You’re going so good at this already and you think you like it now, man, you gonna love it later.
Don’t stop here. Down there’s where all the action is. Put your little pointer right down there. Oh, that's the way. Hold it there.