Interview: Chuck Palahniuk, Pygmy

Let’s say you’re an artist, and you want to set a scene at a quirky location. Somewhere slightly off-kilter and full of possibilities — say, a middle-school Model UN meeting. Depending on what kind of artist you are, there are a number of ways to play it. If you’re twee filmmaker Wes Anderson, you dress the kids in ill-fitting regional costumes and have them wave miniature flags at the camera with blank expressions. If you’re indie band Death Cab for Cutie, you write an ultra-sincere, detail-heavy love song from the point of view of hapless Madagascar, who can’t quite catch the svelte Syria’s eye.

And if you’re alpha-male novelist Chuck Palahniuk, you make those kids drunk and horny, openly cursing and writhing against one another, until a student in a burqa pulls out a .38 Colt and opens fire on the lot of them. Then an undercover foreign terrorist, dressed up as the U.S. delegate in a sequined red, white, and blue cowboy outfit, uses a martial arts move called the Lunging Lynx to decapitate the shooter. With his knees.

This is the world of Pygmy, Palahniuk’s 10th and newest novel, and by this point you already know if you’re in his target audience. The divisive author of such books as Fight Club and Choke has been exploring the gruesome excesses of middle-class America for over a decade, and with a dozen books and two film adaptations under his belt — not to mention a legion of staunchly loyal fans — he’s now one of the most widely recognized authors in North America.

I spoke to Palahniuk last week from his home in Portland, Ore., on the heels of his most recent Canadian promotional tour.

MH: Let’s start with the new novel’s depiction of America. Everyone in the nameless town Pygmy moves to wears T-shirts with gaudy religious slogans on them, they’re incredibly vulgar and xenophobic, and they’re — shall we say — direct about their sexual needs and desires. Is that a fair summary?

CP: From Pygmy’s perspective it is. You always have to take everything with a grain of salt, because Pygmy kind of expects that. It really shapes the way he perceives things.

MH: How much of his perspective parallels your own?

CP: I think everybody’s going to see Pygmy as a political book, but really it’s a coming-of-age book. Pygmy is past that age where he wants to learn how to do everything perfectly and respects the people around him. It’s no mistake that his country has sent him off at the age of 13 or 14, because that’s the age that nothing makes you happy. You just look for the flaws in everything. You make fun of your teachers and you make fun of your parents. By the end of the book we see Pygmy become an adult. He finally develops empathy.

MH: In a nutshell, who is Pygmy? Why does he want to commit this unspecified act of terrorism?

CP: Pygmy is everybody at that stage. For a long time, we really revere our parents. We want to do things that make them happy. We think they are faultless, the best people in the world. And then we go through a stage where we think they’re just idiots, and we look for things that reinforce that perception. And then, eventually, we come to accept them not as completely perfect or completely flawed, but as humans. In Fight Club, the narrator was that kind of little kid, trying to follow every rule he’d ever been taught, trying to find happiness. Tyler manifested the rebellious reaction to every rule. So in a way, Pygmy is at the stage that Tyler Durden represents. Ultimately, Pygmy synthesizes both the obedient child and the rebel, and creates a mature human being, in the same way that both the personalities are fused back together in Fight Club.

MH: Pygmy’s been severely brainwashed and taken from his family, but part of what you’re saying is that he wants to blow things up simply because he’s 13 years old.

CP: Exactly. That’s one big reason they train [the agents] to a certain point and then send them over: they want them to have their big rebellious meltdown somewhere else.

MH: Terrorism and the excesses of the American way of life have been given a lot of attention over the past few years. Going in, what did you think you had to add to that discussion?

CP: If anything, the sadness that Pygmy would see America as this enormous competition for attention and affection: all these products that are dying on the shelves, the dying people who are buying the products. This whole manic denial of mortality. I thought that was something I hadn’t seen before.

MH: What was the novel’s starting point?

CP: I started with this obsession with the character of the cipher, who comes into a situation and doesn’t explain themselves. So they become a void that people fill with their own projections.Everyone projects an aspect of themselves onto Pygmy — including his name. His name is not Pygmy. I look at the way he functions as a mirror. In a way, the reader has to project into him the same way as the other characters do.

MH: Your novels often have a recognizable style and tone, but Pygmy narrates the new book in this choppy, first-person ESL garble. When you sit down to write, do you feel your mind locking into a familiar voice, or is it a constant challenge to rewrite it from scratch?

CP: Until Pygmy, I was really trying to slavishly adhere to the rules of minimalism. With this book I got to play with those and get away from the rules to a certain extent, though there’s still a lot of minimalist stuff there. It’s got a lot of the same devices, which I think are the most effective. It’s still not Jane Austen.

MH: You’ve said that you had to give the novel’s proofreaders a kind of Pygmy style guide, so they’d know there was a method behind his chaotic dialect. What were some of the rules?

CP: Pygmy can’t use compound adjectival phrases. He couldn’t say “guinea pig” — he has to say “pig of Guinea.” He can’t say “toothpaste” — he has to say “paste of teeth.” Sesame Street would have to be “Street of Sesame.” He can’t use the word “the.” He can’t use “and.” He can’t use “I,” unless he’s using it in a quote. He tends to use the same redundancies: baby puppy, arm limb, leg limb, colour red, colour yellow. He doesn’t know “again” — I think he says “always,” or “forever,” or “repeat.”

MH: I’m guessing that was a lot of the fun for you.

CP: It was, it really was. It forced me to open the thesaurus constantly and look for some new form of “great revered esteemed instructor.” All of these adjectives that minimalism wouldn’t allow me to use in the past. In a way it was similar to when I wrote Invisible Monsters, where I was trying to mimic the style of Vogue magazine. You just put 10,000 adjectives together and then the word “sweater” on the end.

MH: Now, in terms of your overall career, you’ve basically put out a book ever year for a decade.

CP: That was always my goal.

MH: Does that come from your work ethic, or is it more of a compulsion?

CP: It’s got more to do with a work ethic, or a sense of — I’m not sure if I should say insecurity, or shame. Writing for a living is such a lame thing to do. I come from a family of people who’ve always had blue collar jobs.

MH: Do you still feel that way, having had the successes you’ve had?

CP: I do. Doing a book a year makes me feel like I’m working hard enough, and the writing itself has become a coping mechanism to deal with the stress of everything else. It always gives me something like a crossword puzzle in my mind — this arbitrary fantasy world that I can retreat into when I’m trapped in an airport, or in a circumstance that’s not very pleasant.

MH: Last year, while caring for your mother, who was dying of cancer, you wrote three full novels. Did writing help you make sense of things in such a difficult time?

CP: It helped by giving me something to do — a pastime that required very little energy from her. I could be with her but without having to enrol her in conversation. It gave me distance from the immediate tragedy, and it gave me an ongoing metaphor to deal with my own feelings. It’s not a big accident that the pivotal moment in Pygmy is when the mother is weeping in the airport, saying, “This is so awful. I’m so sorry to drag you into this.”

MH: Did you find you were writing more autobiographically then? Or maybe the reverse — as abstractly as possible?

CP: I think you can always be more honest when you’re wearing a costume. There’s an old Picasso quote: “Art being the lie that tells the truth better than the truth.” And so I think the fiction gives me a way to trick myself into revealing more than I would ever reveal if I was consciously aware of what I was saying. It’s always a shock a year later when you have to promote this thing. At that point you realize what you said on the page to God knows how many folks. You just have to pray that no one will ever realize what you were writing about. It’s very much like a coded diary.

MH: Have you been surprised at people honing in on the parts you maybe wish they hadn’t?

CP: Every once in a while someone totally nails it — usually in a very public way. And I just have to laugh and say they’re full of shit.

MH: What do you make of the fact that a subversive, anti-status quo writer like yourself has become such a recognizable property in modern fiction?

CP: That’s funny, because I don’t see myself as being that well known. When I think about books that are well known, I think of Harry Potter, Stephen King, the Twilight books, Anne Rice. I think of my books as being very much on the edge of things. And myself as a person, I’m very much not in the writerly life. My editor was saying I’m the only writer he knows who doesn’t review for the Times or do constant teaching.

MH: Would you ever consider turning to reviewing?

CP: I really wouldn’t. I’m a little afraid that if I start to exercise that muscle, just really looking for what doesn’t work, after doing that enough I’ll only see what doesn’t work. I don’t want to strengthen that tendency. And also writing is a small world; I’d rather deal with the people whose work I absolutely adore, and coach and teach the people whose work could be better. Pointing out the weaknesses of someone’s work in print is not always the most productive thing for a writer.

MH: You’re also quite a divisive author, with many loyal fans but equally vocal critics. Does that split bother you?

CP: I never look at [reviews]. Because they either get you high, the really good ones, or they completely piss you off, the really bad ones. Whatever the case, you’ve still got to go out there and do that job.

MH: There was an instance a few years ago where you wrote a letter to Salon, in response to a particularly negative review of your novel Diary. Was there something about that piece that made you want to respond, or did you just let your guard down and actually read one of the negative reviews?

CP: I only read the first part [of the review], because I don’t subscribe to Salon. The part that was available to anybody was more about ridiculing the people who read my books, characterizing them as stupid, or oafish. I thought that was beyond the pale to criticize readers. It’s one thing to criticize writers, but to criticize people who bother to read…

MH: In the past you’ve rejected the label of nihilist. What values do your books champion?

CP: Every single book [of mine] shows people rejecting whatever isolation they’ve achieved, whether it’s the isolation of their education, career, or their beauty. They’ve found some way to shut the world out, and [then] reject this, and form a community with other people, and eventually one other person. In a way, my books depict what Soren Kierkegaard calls a leap of faith, where the characters come to terms with aspects of life, like mortality, in the face of what you can call nihilism. You’re able to commit yourself to the one person that you can be with for the rest of your life.

MH: That’s why you call Pygmy a romance. Do you consider most of your books romances?

CP: Probably every single one.

MH: What about satire? Do you consider yourself a satirist?

CP: To a small degree. I think things like satire or parody, really anything clever or witty, is a form of hiding. It’s also a form of cruelty, or sadism. So I try and keep that to a minimum.

MH: When you do practice it, who is your target?

CP: Me. [Laughs.] I always find some aspect of my life that I recognize is a fallacy, and I try to make fun of the fact that I’m looking at the Ikea catalogue, thinking that if I can just get this thing, it’ll make me an adult. I always try to blow myself out of the water.

Doubleday, 256 pp, $29.95, hardcover

(interview originally appeared in SEE Magazine, May 28, 2009)

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