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Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday / Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-385-50947-2

Publication Date: 08-26-2003

256 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 07-21-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Horror, Mystery, General Fiction

09-20-02, 09-30-02, 10-08-02, 01-07-03, 06-12-03, 08-22-03, 10-22-03

Genre writing tends to be long on genre and short on writing. Chuck Palahniuk's 'Diary' is a horror genre novel built on some of the tightest, most disciplined writing you'll find in any novel. It's a simple, swift read, but the effect that Palahniuk evokes is complex, layered and lasts long after the last page is turned. Those expecting a lot of shock-for-shock's sake will still be shocked, but only by the fact that skillful writing can chill every bit as effectively as overkill. With a razor-sharp wit Palahniuk shows that he can disembowel Main Street America without offending it. 'Diary' is a highly commercial novel that is relentlessly anti-commercial. It's frightening because the truth laid bare is frightening. It's also frightening because Palahniuk provides genre gratification by executing his artistic ideals of minimalism and parading, not sacrificing them. Like most Chuck Palahniuk novels, it's a bag full of blades. There are so many sharp edges to cut yourself with, you won't know you're bleeding until it's far too late.

'Diary' is written in the form of a coma diary, kept by Misty Tracy Wilmot, whose husband Peter lies in a coma after a failed suicide attempt. Shortly after the suicide, the phone calls begin. Peter was a contractor, and his customers are calling to complain that they've found the missing closets and rooms that disappeared after he worked on the house. Inside those rooms, Peter has scrawled vile and disturbing messages, some of them apparently meant for Misty. Misty gave up her dreams of being an artist and married the wealthy Peter only to end up working as a hotel maid on Waytansea Island as the family money slowly dried up. Now she's being threatened with lawsuits from dozens of homeowners. Her creepily possessive mother-in-law is offering advice that strikes her as both weird and unhelpful. 'Diary' documents her struggle to stay solvent and keep her child fed, clothed, housed and alive.

Palahniuk has constructed an ingenious plot to drive his prose. He draws on the history of horror and literature from sources as diverse as Ira Levin and Henry James, but his plot is unique and highly original. He evokes the supernatural awe of writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Dennis Etchison, and the clever commonsense plot-planning of writers such as Ruth Rendell and Elmore Leonard. Like the best horror writers, he keeps the reader on edge wondering whether the denouement will be a supernatural or natural revelation. The details he's accumulated contribute nicely to the utterly enjoyable payoff.

But 'Diary' isn't just about plot. While it reads like lightning, 'Diary' is a classy conceptual riff on narration, creation, art and inspiration. Palahniuk's narrative voice deserves to be studied closely. Ostensibly a simple first-person diary, in reality there are many levels to the storyteller and the story told. Palahniuk's clever plot is plunged into a mathematically constructed hall of narrative mirrors. This enables Palahniuk to effortlessly create complex perceptions of art history, art itself, the artistic process, the writing process, and the process of creating an identity. Pursue any single idea in any single direction and you'll encounter a world of provocative permutations.

All of this happens without ay effort or realization on the reader's part. Palahniuk is a masterful storyteller, and he's created a number of compelling characters to tell his story. Misty Wilmot, her mother-in-law Grace, Peter Wilmot and Angel Delaporte lock together with puzzle perfection inside Palahnuik's plot and prose. Of course, each Palahniuk book needs a lot of facts. In 'Diary' expect to learn enough about coma victims to send shivers down your spine while you can still move it, and enough about art technique and history to inspire a trip the library if not the art supply store. And each detail, each writerly technique goes to contribute to a whole that is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.

'Diary' is one of those rare novels that are simple and enjoyable to read, yet it sets up echoes within the reader that will last for days or months afterwards. It's also likely to draw the largest audience yet for Palahniuk's writing. His barbs are just as sharp as ever, his writing and wit remain intact, but his subject is far more palatable than those treated in his other work. The result is that 'Diary' is in fact more powerful than his spikier previous novels. The narrative layers employed by Palahniuk enable the reader to make exciting conceptual cross-connections while reading the novel. The shivers build slowly and last long after the novel is finished. The plot is accessible and comprehensible even as the layers reveal surprise after surprise. Watch out. While you're busy being stunned, Palahniuk is doing unpleasant things to your mind.