The Short Version: The latest teenage trend is a defibrillator to the temples, a father follows a strange man called Tyler into the bowels of a German city, fathers and sons try to understand each other, and a Jew saves Christmas in just a few of the stories in Chuck Palahniuk’s first true short story collection.
The Review: The best thing about this collection is how surprising it is. You sort of think, at this point, that you know Chuck Palahniuk, right? Even when he’s telling a new story, you know his schtick at this point – but it turns out, that’s not true.
I got my first hints of this at the Selected Shorts launch of this collection, when Sam Underwood read “Zombie” (one of the standout stories here, by the way). The story had all the playful shock that Palahniuk is known for, but it had more heart and more emotional seriousness than expected. And it turns out that that’s not a fluke or a one-off: dare I say, Mr. Palahniuk is branching out into maturity. Not too far, not too much – but it’s there.
That’s not to say that there aren’t the weird, gross stories too. I’d heard “The Toad Prince” at Halloween last year and that weirded me the hell out – so much so that I blasted through it on the page, preemptively cringing the whole time. There’s a story involving beastiality, a story about a guy who gets the nickname “Cannibal” because of a particular service he provides to the young women of his high school… and they are all as squirmy as you hope. There are plenty of other people who tell similar tales but nobody does it better than Palahniuk. These are stories you truly cannot unread.
He does a little running bit throughout the collection, with stories titled “How Monkey Got Married, Bought a House, and Found Happiness in Orlando” / “Why Coyote Never Had Money for Parking” / “Why Aardvark Never Landed on the Moon” – a riff on Aesopian fables, with animals as main characters and presenting a moral of sorts… but also just an opportunity for Palahniuk to have a good giggle. The man’s sense of humor is never far from the page, even in serious moments – like the third story, about Aardvark, which turns almost melancholy as it winds down. And I was pleasantly surprised by how sensitively he managed to balance humor with seriousness, in a way that (again) you wouldn’t quite expect.
There are a couple of only so-so stories – as with any collection that contains more than ten stories, this one feels over-full – but the nice thing about them is that they’re all pretty short. A special bonus is that if you’ve ever heard Palahniuk read, many of these shorter tales will ring out in his voice, which makes them zip by even faster and makes even the most “eh” of stories worth your time.
But there are two stories worth mentioning by name before I go: “Expedition” and “Torcher”. The former has been widely touted as featuring Tyler Durden – and it does, in a way that expands the mythos of Palahniuk’s most famous character in ways that nobody ever expected. It has me all the more excited for Fight Club 2.
But “Torcher”… it’s one of the two long stories in the collection and it was hands-down my favorite. Without going too much into the premise, it takes place at a Burning Man-esque festival in the desert and plays with the tropes of the put-upon “sheriff” and serial killers and Weird culture. And I absolutely flipped for it. I kind of hope he expands it into an entire novel – the seeds are all there, it could fill out and be a crazy cat-and-mouse story. Or it could live, as the best short stories do, as its own entire world within just a few short pages. Either way, I had no idea I’d go so crazy for a Palahniuk story in this way. It rocked.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The collection is really the first thing to surprise me from Palahniuk in years. I didn’t realize he had some of these bits in him, whether its the emotional deftness of several tales or just the thematic shifts. I wonder if he’s finally realizing that his fan base can and will follow him anywhere – and I wonder if this collection doesn’t signal a little more exploration in his novel-length work. His next book hasn’t, to my knowledge, been announced yet… and while I’ve always said that I’ll be there on release day regardless, I find that I’m actually genuinely excited about whatever’s going to happen next. And that’s the best gift a book can give.