Friday, May 7, 2010

You Must Learn The Ways of the Force

Alas, today is Friday, which heralds the end of my inaugural blogging stint. But what better way to end than with a re-cap of the Chuck Palahniuk event I attended last night?

Chuck is probably best-known for his cult classic Fight Club, which got made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Which is pretty good, as far as first novel success goes. However, he's been writing furiously ever since, and some of his other equally awesome (if less famous) books include Choke, Haunted, Lullaby, Snuff and Pygmy. His latest book, TELL-ALL, went on sale this week and so he's currently in the middle of a cross-country tour to promote it.
To call a Chuck Palahniuk event a "reading" is like calling the Superbowl "a football game." Good writers aren't always good performers -- we've all been to at least one reading where the author was hunched over the podium and mumbling in a monotone -- but that's not a problem plaguing Chuck. He is a consummate entertainer, and any evening with him is probably best described as a "Chuck-tacular," even a "Chuck-a-Palooza." For starters, though the majority of readings usually take place in a cramped bookstore with standing room only, Chuck's are held in venues like Webster Hall or Cooper-Union. Because his modus operandi is a little different (and his popularity high) a bigger and more theatrical set-up suits him well. As always, his fans turned out en masse last night, some even in costume, filling the seats and carrying stacks of books for him to sign.

Broadway legend Julie Halston kicked off the proceedings with a dramatic reading from Tell-All, perfectly channeling the voice of narrator Hazie Coogan, and then Chuck came onstage to announce the first contest of the night. He has a history of incorporating gag gifts into his performances -- apparently before every tour he scours job lot stores to find the perfect theme item -- and, as Tell-All is set in both the spotlights and the shadows of Hollywood's Golden Age, he kept the trend alive with four-feet-tall inflatable Oscar statuettes. The first people to fully inflate them won plastic turkeys, signed by Chuck himself, and the audience whole-heartedly accepted the challenge. It was a mob scene as Chuck and his helpers spun the plastic packages out into pairs upon pairs of grasping hands.

(That's Chuck on the right, in the foreground, exercising his throwing arm). For a few minutes, the only sounds were deep, gasping breaths and the hiss of the little valves, but people puffed them up surprisingly swiftly. After picking the winners, Chuck got back into author mode and read an absolutely stunning brand-new story called "Knock Knock". I won't tell you what it's about, as it's going to be published in the December edition of Playboy -- though I suppose that gives you a clue about its general content -- but I was absolutely floored by his performance. The ovation he received at the end shook the spotlights hanging from the auditorium ceiling, but applause quickly turned into cheering as he began flinging another round of statuettes and turkeys.

The last part of the night was a Q & A with Bill Goldstein, an English professor at Hunter College and a founding editor of Normally I dread Q & A sessions because they can be kind of asinine, but Bill asked some really thoughtful and challenging questions -- he'd obviously read and liked the book -- and Chuck answered all of them with wit and grace. When discussing the perils of gossip and fame (a central theme of Tell-All), Bill asked him if he had ever been the victim of a false story or accusation. "My friends will call me up and say 'I didn't know you were a vampire!' " Chuck replied, but his outlook on the whole thing is actually quite zen. He believes that trying to publicly counter this culture of exaggeration and notoriety actually accords it more power; engaging with falsehood just makes it worse. "It's like a taking a rape whistle with you to prison." I think he might have a point.

What's so exhilarating about Chuck is his innate ability to make reading a holistic and accessible experience. He reaches out to build connections beyond the page; he's not too proud, or obsessed with the idea of himself as an auteur, to distribute his work and ideas through multiple mediums (live performance, cinema, digital media). His reward is a readership rare in its loyalty and diversity -- last night people queued for several hours just to get a chance to talk with him, and they were old, young, disheveled, smartly-dressed, male, female, black, white. There are something like six million copies of his books in print, but he still took time personalize his inscriptions and pose for photographs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying he's the reincarnation of Mohandas Gandhi or anything, but seeing people so excited abour reading books warmed the cockles of my cynical and bitter heart. I do think that those who bemoan the inevitable death of the printed word might do well to learn from him: he charts a measured middle course, valuing the integrity of literature as a concept while adapting it to reflect the changing culture in which we live.

Let that thought, dear readers -- my Luke Skywalkers of the literary universe -- burn slowly like an ember within you; let it radiate heat and light into the dark unknown of the future. We are the ones in charge of creating that future, and if we fixate on apocalyptic scenarios of a society bereft of books and culture we are in a sense acknowledging that we've already given up. I think it was our friend Gandhi who said "be the change you wish to see in the world." So keep reading, keep believing, keep buying books -- don't underestimate the Force.

I deliver you now into the capable hands of my fellow Jedi Katie Freeman, who will be blogging next week. I'll catch you on the flip side, but in the meantime you can always write to:

May the Book be with you.

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