CHUCK PALAHNIUK - author of Fight Club, Survivor and Choke among many others - is back with one of his most stimulating efforts yet in Beautiful You. “It’s gonna wipe Fight Club off the map,” Chuck told me a year ago. “I combine the romance novels my mother used to read with the pornography my father used to read. I call it gonzo eroticism.”
The idea for Beautiful You came from a TEDTalk on arousal addiction - an idea Chuck thought “fascinating” as “no-one was really talking about it before then” - which was soon reinforced by the viewing of a daytime TV ad for a vibrator, which he found “a bit shocking”. Taking these ideas he combined them with his own personal demon to create his latest story.
“I have a new short story collection out in May next year,” Chuck says. “The kind of short stories I do are disguised journalism where people have told me true things and I’ve repeated those things in order to cultivate the core idea. With a novel, however, typically I’m resolving a personal issue that I need to focus on and exhaust in 300 hundred pages.
“The episodes where Penny (the book’s hero) finds herself subjected to sexual arousal beyond her control are very much me working through having panic attacks,” Chuck explains. “I wanted a way to deal with my panic attacks through the disguise of this girl subjected to this sexual arousal. The vibrator seemed like a very good metaphor for explaining arousal addiction and the sexual acts seemed like a good metaphor for explaining my own panic attacks.”
Whereas Fight Club came under fire for glorifying violence and anarchy when in fact it was an intelligent dissection of the male psyche, Beautiful You is set to run a similar risk of being accused of misogyny. Chuck is prepared for that, and has a counterpoint.
“It’s not so much about women as it is about each generation and how they have to find their own goal,” he says. “They can’t just accept the goal of the previous generation. And in the case of Penny she realises she has somewhat accepted the goal of feminism without deciding whether they’re her goals. I think every generation instead of just accepting the goals of their parents foisted on them – every generation has to find its own goal.”
Was this sense of identity linked to Chuck’s anxiety?
“I dunno if that’s the core of my anxiety,” he says. “But I know it’s an anxiety for a lot of young people when they’re starting out. They have been taught all along what to strive for and what they should be. And then they get out of college and they really don’t know, they realise that they’ve never really thought for themselves about what they should be - so I would see that more of a fear of someone much younger than me.”
As with many of his books there is a reveal at the end, not to be confused with an M. Night Shyamalan twist. “I don’t have twists in my books so much as I have reveals,” Chuck says. “The information has been there all along; only at the end is the veil lifted.
“I see [the book] as open for people to reveal themselves,” he continues. “Their interpretation reveals more about them than it does about the work itself. It’s like a Rorschach test.”
Throughout Beautiful You Chuck mentions a few personalities - Rachel Griffiths, Ron Jeremy and Ron Howard - often for comic effect. Was this to ground this fantastical story in real life or was it simply for a chuckle?
“It’s such a real thing embedded in such an over-the-top make believe world,” Chuck says. “And in another way it’s funny. It’s also an homage to the style I’m lampooning, that kind of chick-lit where they’re constantly name dropping celebrities and fashion designers in books like The Devil Wears Prada. That’s part of the style so that’s why I did it.”
The book - as you would imagine given the subject matter - is filled with confronting dialogue and imagery, including a charming image of a religious couple walking into a room and being liberally sprayed with ejaculate from a copulating couple. I ask how Chuck deals with writing such passages.
“I really enjoy it!” he says with obvious glee. “[As far as pushing boundaries] I have to answer to myself. I’m more worried about my own regret that I didn’t go to the furthest of my imagination when I was working on a project. I’m far more damning on my work than any outsider could possibly be.
“I do have a point where the material is too much,” he continues. “There was a previous draft talking about carving vegetables into dildos and how this carved potato could be used as a dildo and then washed and served for the family dinner. And I thought that was the ‘over-the-top’ moment where I’d gone far enough and I could begin to back off. You don’t want to exhaust people. You reach that point of offensiveness and then you back off and give people a rest before you take them to greater, more challenging material.”
So as well as channelling his own anxiety attacks, why does Chuck feel the need to pen this particular tome?
“There’s so much in the world obviously geared toward sexually aroused men,” he says. “So much advertising blatantly focused on turning men on and getting their attention and selling men things through sexual arousal. It’s time to turn the tables.”
And as is his wont, there’s plenty more on the horizon for Chuck.
“I’m flying to Calafornia this weekend for a book event. My last one was eight hours of signing. This one will be 10- 11 hours. I’ve had some meeting with James Franco; they’re working on a draft for a film of Rant. The first issue of the Fight Club sequel graphic novel and the new short story collection will come out in May. [David Fincher is] trying to put together a stage musical of Fight Club. He said he has Trent Reznor excited about doing the music for it. I finally go down to talk to him on Sunday we’re going to spend a day together to talk about it amongst other things.”
Chuck Palahniuk’s Beautiful You is out now on Random House.