Selected Shorts: Make Something Up with Chuck Palahniuk

photo (6)my terribly messy scribblings all over the program…

Have you ever been to a Chuck Palahniuk reading? The last one I went to, I got hit in the face with a bag of Almond Joy (hurled by Mr. P himself), inflated a beach ball, and caught a severed arm.
Didn’t quite know what to expect at a slightly more refined event – but I knew Palahniuk would find a way to meld his delightfully weird sensibility with whatever he was doing. And he did, strolling out on the stage after Matthew Love’s introduction toting a pineapple and placing it at the far end of the stage. It remained there throughout and was collected at the end. This went unexplained. It was great.

Chuck opened with two stories – not fiction, but the truest form of stories: telling us something about somebody else. Both were stories about blood at signings – the story about Clive Barker supposedly signing books with a fan’s blood (true) and a story about Stephen King at a signing bleeding on all the 15k books he signed – but they served to introduce a character, someone Chuck knew well, a woman named Kim Ricketts. And by the time he was done talking (just a minute or two, really), we all knew her where we hadn’t before. With a twinkle in his eye, Chuck explained: that is the magic of storytelling.

The evening was bookended by new Chuck stories and, in between, we heard two stories that Chuck said were stories that initially, originally, inspired him to write. “There was an explosion of great short stories in the late 80s, early 90s”, he said, adding that “we’re in a short story renaissance right now.” After listing several other favorites, he introduced Sarah Steele to read one of his stories, “Loser”.

Being in the grand tradition of a rational narrator who spirals into insanity, this followed a young Zeta Delt during pledge week who just dropped acid at The Price is Right. Not surprisingly, she ends up onstage and “maybe it’s the acid but” she ends up having a paranoid “what am I doing with my life?” moment in the midst of the game show. Steele absolutely nailed Palahniuk’s rhythms (once you hear the man speak, his writing becomes that much more obviously-his and, like Shakespeare, there’s a flow to it) and had just the right amount of physicality, embodying this young nameless Zeta Delt without ever acting. There’s also an absolutely hilarious description of Bob Barker in this story.

Zipping right along, Chuck introduced the first of the inspiration stories, “Strays” by Mark Richard and read by Alex Hurt. The story follows a young boy and his brother and their family, poor and somewhere in the country – and it’s a more straightforward story than the former, less obviously funny, a little more rambly… but the ending packs a punch, one that elicited gasps from the audience.  Hurt’s reading was a little too stagey, a little self-conscious at times, but that undeniable Hurt Family voice kept folks engaged.  And then, suddenly, it was intermission – I don’t think I’ve been to a Selected Shorts that moved so fast.

Coming back, the amazing Becky Ann Baker read a story called “Through the Safety Net” by Charles Baxter that Palahniuk introduced by explaining how “one of the problems with writing is that you learn the tricks” – but the admiration (and frustration and rage) that comes from being surprised then becomes that much more valuable. And this story surprised him, so he was sharing it with us.
And boy did it surprise us. As he said when he came back out, winking: “Gotcha.”  I won’t tell you the story other than the basic outline: a woman’s psychic calls with a mysterious pronouncement of doom. Baker delivered it flawlessly and seemed herself to be caught up in the surprise at the end, making every single person (the people who knew the story and those who didn’t alike) go “whoa” at the end.  One of the best readings I’ve seen at Shorts….

…followed immediately by another of the best readings I’ve seen at Shorts.  Sam Underwood read a new Palahniuk story that he’d written to read on tour, “Zombie” – and I was astonished by how hopeful it was. Palahniuk has included happy endings and he’s never all that doom and gloom – but there’s a nihilism that runs through his characters and the messed-up worlds they inhabit. And while the world of “Zombie” is pretty messed up, it surprises the reader (or listener) because it doesn’t take the dark tack you expect it to. Or, it does, but it veers from it into this burst of hope and light and I swear to you, reader, that several people (myself included) had unexpected tears in their eyes. I won’t go into it, because it (as with so many) is worth the reading – but Underwood captured the youthful stress of being a teenager in this world, with the responsibility of succeeding and being great instead of just… being a kid.  It was an especially poignant story considering the recent news stories focusing more and more on the ridiculous standardized testing in this country, John Oliver‘s being the best example but I’ve seen them everywhere.

Chuck said, in his last statement from the stage, that he hoped we’d remember – this story but also, by extension, the ones that’d come before, and the night. I think it’s easy to say that I will, for it defied any expectations I had about a Palahniuk evening while seamlessly melding the weirdness of the author to the structure of Selected Shorts.  It was a perfect night.
There’s one more Shorts this season (about Road Trips) but I’ll miss it for work, so this was my last Shorts of the season – and I’m so glad I found this place. It’s a delight to go hear stories read to you by incredible performers and it can be a magical insight into the author’s style and brain.  I look forward to next season and to many seasons to come – and if you’re in New York, swing by Symphony Space, or if you’re not, check out the podcast.  I’ll bet you’ll like it too.



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