Stranger Than Fiction

by Chuck Palahniuk, reading at First Unitarian Church,

When you write fiction, you draw from your own experiences. When you write nonfiction--say a memoir--there's no way you can recall events with complete accuracy. With fiction you're always telling some truths; with nonfiction you're always telling some lies.

In Chuck Palahniuk's new book of nonfiction stories, Stranger than Fiction, Portland's resident literary superstar struggles to be both truthful and objective. The book is divided into three sections: "People Together," "Portraits," and "Personal," and it's only the final section that's truly successful. In "People Together" Palahniuk gives the reader a collection of true stories from his travels. The most compelling anecdote of the bunch, "Testy Festy," finds him at the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival in Montana, where people fuck each other in broad daylight, and eat heaps of fried bull testicles. This story works because the scenery is so outlandish--like being on a porn set or at an orgy, you're utterly amazed. In many of the other stories, however, the topic needs more selling. In one chapter, Palahniuk writes about a Demolition Derby in Lind, Washington, where farmers soup up their farming rigs and smash them into each other until only one is left running. It's an intriguing premise, but Palahniuk's reporting neglects the derby contestants themselves. His prose is always muscular and lean, but here it borders on the anorexic. It's hard to care about characters when the sentences describing them are limited to gems like "Mike Hardung is here for his third year, driving Mean Gang-Green, a 1973 John Deere 7700."

Similarly, in the "Portraits" section, Palahniuk profiles celebrities, giving minimal commentary of his own. Marilyn Manson rambles on about his childhood and his record deal, and Palahniuk never gives us any impressions of this super-weirdo, which would provide a welcome reprieve from the blabbing.

The "Personal" section, unlike the other two, gets into Palahniuk's feelings about his dad's death, the success of his book Fight Club, and his insecurities. If I'm going to read a nonfiction book by Chuck Palahniuk, this is the hook that will reel me in. The stories are interesting and funny and sad; too bad they only take up about a sixth of the book.