Let’s Talk Books – Survivor

Warning: Spoilers

Last year I finally read Fight Club for the first time (I know, I’m really behind on a lot of books). It was fresh. It was exciting. The narration was something I’d never actually seen in a novel, only short stories. And since I love short stories, I was ecstatic to have found that style adapted into a longer work. It was so good, I actually read it again once I finished. I don’t think that urge has ever happened to me before. As much as I love reading, the desire to read through an entire book again never really grabs me. But for Fight Club it did, and not only did I read it again, I read it again in one sitting. Again, not something that normally happens. I have a hard time sitting still for more than an hour. But Fight Club, man. There’s just something about it that gets you caught up in the flow of everything, and it’s pretty hard to put down.

Oh, right, I’m supposed to be talking about Survivor. Well, I bought some new books with Christmas money, and I promised myself I would check out another novel by Chuck Palahniuk. I picked up Survivor if for no other reason than it was his second published novel (the first being Fight Club). As I was holding it in the bookstore, flipping through the pages, the first thing I noticed was that both the page numbers and chapters were in descending order. I loved it. Can you not? The book starts on page 289, Chapter 47 and ends on page 1, Chapter 1. I don’t know, I just love it. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe what I’ve read of Palahniuk’s writing as “experimental,” but I’ve noticed he plays around with form a lot, at least more than most authors I’ve read. He uses this train of thought narration, and he cycles between a variety of observational statements that leaves the reader with a very surreal experience. The decision to number the pages this way only add to this nature of the book (not to mention how it ties in with the concept of the story, which is being told as a plane’s engines are burning out and is awaiting its eventual crash). My copy of the book also has a fun cover; if you cut and fold along the dotted lines, you can make a paper airplane. Not that I would ever ruin the book this way, but it’s a nice touch that helps make the novel stand out. 🙂

At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Tender Branson, the narrator. He started off very unlikable, encouraging suicidal people to kill themselves and threatening to kill himself if his caseworker didn’t do his job for him. In any other book I think I would have gone on hating him, but in this book he fits the world perfectly. He’s a messed up character in a messed up world filled with other messed up characters, and I think Palahniuk does a pretty good job making Tender’s narration relatable enough where we can like him. Well, where we can like him enough.

Since Tender narrates the novel, let’s talk a little more about the narration. As I mentioned earlier, Survivor makes use of a narrative style that incorporates a variety of seemingly random observational statements. Similar to Fight ClubSurvivor‘s narrator also describes (in great detail) on how to do things most people aren’t (or shouldn’t) know how to do. For example, here’s how Chapter 36 opens:

There’s a way to polish chrome with club soda. To clean the ivory or bone handles on cutlery, rub them with lemon juice and salt. To get the shine off a suit, dampen the cloth with a weak mixture of water and ammonia, then iron with a damp pressing cloth.

The secret for making perfect boeuf Bourguignon is to add some orange peel.

To remove cherry stains, rub them with a ripe tomato and wash as usual.

The key is not to panic.

To make pants keep a sharp crease, turn them inside out and rub a bar of soap on the inside of the crease. Turn them rightside out and iron as usual.

The trick is to keep busy.

Despite the fact the killer called, I’m doing everything as usual.

The secret is to not let your imagination get carried away.” (204-3)

Scenes like these fill the entire book, and although at times they seem random, they add to the story in their own way. The narration does a good job at showing how Tender’s mind flows from one thought to another. Honestly, this is what I love most about Palahniuk’s writing. There’s something about the way he breaks down each of these observations, how he separates many thoughts into their own lines, and how he constantly switches his focus that gives us a really strong insight into the mind of an overthinker. It’s really unique, and as in Fight Club, there are a lot of lines that just stand so well on their own. Here are a few of my favorites:

People used what they call a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.” (275)

“I don’t want her falling in love with me as a voice on the phone while at the same time she’s trying to ditch me as a real person.” (225)

“If you worry about disaster all the time, that’s what you’re going to get.” (49)

Sometimes, however, there was something in the narration that seemed… off. I don’t really know how to describe it (or maybe it’s just poor reading on my part), but I felt there were a lot of moments where there was an extra word that screwed up how a sentence was read, or there should have been a comma somewhere, or something like that. And of course, as I’m looking through the book to find a good example, I can’t really find one. It might just be me, then, but I would be curious to know if anyone else felt that way while reading the book.

Before I move on from the actual writing itself, one more thing I wanted to mention was how conversations were made. Like Fight Club, dialogue the narrator speaks isn’t in quotes, but part of the narration itself. The rest of the characters, however, do speak in quotes. This really helps add to the dream-like quality the story has. And I use the term “dream-like” because the whole story, with its surreal nature and fast pace, actually does seem like a dream, specifically a dream you can remember what other people in it say but not yourself, although you do remember what you felt (if that makes any sense at all). It feels like all of Tender’s dialogue is both being presented to the reader and the characters, and because there are a ton of relatable lines in the book as well, Survivor does a great job at making you feel part of the story itself.

All right, on to more characters. Tender was pretty enjoyable in his own way, but Fertility Hollis stole the show for me. I loved Fertility. Like Tender, I shouldn’t have. She plays mind games with him early in the book, and like people who take suicide lightly, I don’t appreciate girls that mess with other guys’ heads. But like Tender, she fit so well into this novel as a character. They both remind me how we can appreciate people as characters in books when we normally wouldn’t as real people. I love how she pretends not to know who Tender is on the phone. I love how she’s interested in him in person but then talks negatively about him on the phone with him. I love how she says she doesn’t tell people upsetting news about the future because then she’ll be investigated when the events happen. I love how Tender gets frustrated with her. I love how she dances with him in a burning building. I love how he eventually places blind faith in her, even though she keeps things from him and even tricks him onto the plane that may kill him (and then laughs at him). I love that despite the fact she knows everything that will happen, she doesn’t reveal how Tender will move on from the past, but lets him do that for himself (which he should). I love how she belittles Tender when he finally loses his virginity and comes as soon as he starts. Again, I don’t think I would normally like a character like her, but she fits in so well in this novel I can’t help but love her.

Tender’s brother Adam, on the other hand, seemed a little out of place. I mean, he was introduced early in the book, and in one way or another stayed relevant throughout the plot, but towards the end he just kind of joins Fertility and Tender like it’s not big deal. And since he’s sort of an antagonist, it’s just a little weird that he’s there at all. I mean, it’s not that weird, considering how the entire story is told and the hurricane of events that the narrator gets swept up and goes along with, but if there’s anything in the novel that I wish a little more time had been given to, it’s Adam’s inclusion. Something just seems off. I can’t quite put my finger on it. For as much as Tender didn’t want to think about Adam or admit to him being alive, he didn’t seem to mind too much when his brother traveled with him. He didn’t seem too upset about Adam’s death, either (although that makes more sense, if Tender didn’t want him around, and to be fair, other characters’ deaths didn’t affect him either). But maybe Adam wasn’t supposed to be a bigger deal. He was just one aspect of Tender’s life that he wanted to leave behind so he could truly start over.

The ending. Well… liked it. I thought it was fitting. Tender tells his story, releasing all of the the baggage he’d carried around his entire life, and in the last moments before the plane crashes, he’s in a state of bliss. The plane crashes in the middle of his narration, and the novel’s over. Does he die? I did a little research, and people seem confused about it. My first thought would be yes (he is in a plane crash, after all), although there are a few clues and theories that suggest otherwise. The most popular one references something Palahniuk said, which I would recommend reading here.

I think I’m still missing something, though, because Palahniuk’s explanation still appears to have some holes in it. Yes, there is a tape recorder in that pile he mentions. Yes, he does leave to go to the bathroom in Chapter 47, way back when the book first started (I’m assuming this is what he meant by “last chapter,” because Chapter 1 doesn’t make sense in this context). But the thing is, even though there are parts of Chapter 1 that are nearly identical to Chapter 47, they’re not the exact same. They’re slightly different. So if the Chapter 1 is his recording playing while he himself escaped, why isn’t it exactly the same? I guess it’s possible he made another recording, but why make this so complicated? There’s nothing that would have even indicated that all this was happening. I mean, yes, the tape recorder was there, and he had the opportunity to do this in the bathroom, but nothing in the actual novel suggests he does do this. It’s like no one would have even realized it without Palahniuk’s explanation. Like I said, I still feel like I’m missing something important for this to make more sense.

But in the end, does it really matter if Tender survives? Like I said, he sheds all of his burdens about the past, and during the last set of chapters, Fertility persuaded me that this what Tender needed to do all along. I don’t know if this was the ending’s intent, but this is what I took away from it, and I’m fine with it. So maybe Tender escapes and he can be with Fertility and they can work on making him last longer during sex. That would be cool. Or maybe he dies, but dies with no regrets. That would be cool with me, too. The realization is what was most important, although I can see how some people might be frustrated or disappointed with such an ambiguous ending.

You’ve probably noticed by now that I’ve compared Survivor to Fight Club a lot during this discussion. Well, that was intentional. I didn’t want to constantly compare the two, but as I read through this book, there were a lot of moments where I felt like this was very similar to Fight Club. I don’t think this in itself is a bad thing. After all, I think a lot of people check out different books by authors they like with the expectation that the author’s style is consistent throughout his works. But maybe because Palahniuk’s narration stands out the most to me, Survivor felt a little too similar to Fight Club. And after reading a handful of negative reviews on Goodreads, it seems that a lot of people feel like Palahniuk’s writing shares this problem. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve only read Fight Club and Survivor, so I’m not the best person to touch on this, but it is something I’m concerned about.

In the end, I still really liked Survivor. I had a couple of qualms, but it’s still a really great book. Go check it out if you’re into experimental or unconventional storytelling. For those that like stories with more concrete, laid-out facts, though, I would proceed with caution. This book may not be for you, although I still recommend at least checking it out. Read the first few chapters in a book store or library, see how it goes. As for me, I’m still really looking forward to the next Palahniuk book I read.

Info for my edition of Survivor:

  • Published 2010 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Paperback, 289 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-393-33807-2

Struggling With Nonfiction

I don’t really write (or read) nonfiction. Most of my creative writing classes in college focused on fiction. During my last semester, though, I did take a nonfiction workshop. I had reservations at first. This might seem hypocritical for someone that blogs aspects of his personal life, but I generally don’t like to put my bullshit out there. I have a couple of people I’ll talk to about things that really upset me, but I usually keep my problems to myself. To me, nonfiction just seemed like it was putting your problems out there for the world to see.

I was glad to discover that it wasn’t like that. Posting multiple self-pitying messages a day on Facebook is putting your bullshit out there. Sighing and going into rants about how much your life sucks every time someone says “Hey, how are you doing?” is putting your bullshit out there. Nonfiction? Nah. That’s different. Nonfiction isn’t just recounting events (shitty or not) from your life into a biography. It’s not just about the facts. You’ve got to actually write a story. You’ve got to construct those events and facts into a tangible work that flows and narrates like a fiction piece. I was actually pretty surprised to find that writing nonfiction was very similar to writing fiction. The biggest difference I found was trying to make a story make sense when the real life events didn’t. Unlike fiction, you just can’t add in events that didn’t exist.

Recently I’ve been working on my first nonfiction piece since my last semester in college, and I’ve found a new challenge: writing negatively about a difficult, current relationship. I won’t go into details on the off chance that person (or someone that knows that person) reads this, but let’s just say this piece is full of a lot of hate. A lot of pent up hate. And the thing is, I don’t really hate this person. This person just drives me fucking crazy and sometimes I can’t stand it.

As I’ve been writing this piece, and as I’ve been writing about all the things that I’ve kept bottled up, I’ve been feeling guilty. I feel guilty about writing these things, and I shouldn’t. I know I don’t hate this person, I know I have good things to say, and I know I don’t like to concentrate on the negatives, so why do I still feel guilty?

I dunno. I thought about it for a while, and I still don’t know. I don’t feel guilty when writing fiction because even though a character or a scene might be based on someone or something from my life, it’s not the same. They may be similar, but they’re two different entities. Maybe it’s because this is the first time I’m writing hate towards someone I don’t really hate. Maybe it’s because these complicated feelings are being written down into a physical form, physical proof that these feelings exist. Maybe it’s because this story also represents a bigger problem many people have, a problem this specific person would hate to admit to.

But, I really want to get these feelings out. And I really want to show how this problem affects people. And… I dunno. Guilt aside, I still really want to finish writing it. I want to send it out for a contest due at the end of the month and my college’s literary magazine (which also happens to stop taking submissions at the end of the month).

You know, it’s weird. I’ve always faced awkward obstacles when writing. Fiction or not, I usually have to wade through unpleasant emotions and memories when I write. But I get through it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m gonna get through this piece, too. But it’s the first time I’m feeling guilty for writing. And it’s nagging at me.

And, as a good friend and writer told me, I shouldn’t feel guilty. And she’s right; I should never feel guilty for writing. I should never feel guilty for wanting to express something that’s bothering me in an artistic medium, either. I can’t fault myself for feeling the way I do. So as I’m finishing up this piece, I’m going to try harder not to let the guilt stop me from pulling my punches. After all, if I’m writing to tackle a specific topic (and how I feel about this person), letting guilt overwhelm me is only going to weaken the story.

Drifting Apart

Last week, my parents and I took my cousin out for her birthday. This struck me as kind of weird because we’d never really done this for her before. We’re fairly close, though, and my parents have gone out of their way to do things for her before, so maybe it wasn’t as weird as I initially thought.

Still, it wasn’t a great night. I didn’t really expect it to be; as close as we are as family members, we aren’t particularly close as people. I don’t think we really have anything in common, and we both struggle to find things to talk about. I actually didn’t even want to go. I usually don’t volunteer to go to any kind of social situation where I know I won’t be able to have an actual conversation with someone. But for the sake of showing my support and care for her, I tagged along. We left the house late (of course), and as we took her exit off the parkway, we hit an unexpected backup of traffic. This led to about 20 minutes of my dad cursing, complaining, and being an overall uncomfortable person to be stuck in a small car with.

We met up at a Mexican restaurant, which I thought would be pretty cool because I’ve been craving tacos and quesadillas lately. It was packed, though. And I mean really packed, there were people trying to push through each other in the waiting area alone. When my cousin and her boyfriend came in, we greeted each other and chatted, but the place was so loud I could barely hear anything at all.

The noise didn’t really stop all night. My mother, who was sitting next to me, kept yelling so my cousin, who sat on the other side of me, could hear. And my dad, who spoke loudly all the time anyway, took it up another notch and made sure the whole place could hear him. I was mostly quiet. Sometimes I chimed in with questions or commentary to whatever we were talking about, but as with most social situations with my family, I was usually ignored or spoken over. Eventually, my cousin and parents ran out of things to talk about, and they kind of just faked their way through dinner until the bill came. And as with most situations like these, the greetings and goodbyes were filled with twice as much energy and enthusiasm than the actual get-together was.

On the way home, I sat in the backseat, letting a bunch of frustrated feelings simmer. My earphones decided to give out, too, so I tried playing with the cord to find that one sweet spot that lets me hear music through both buds. Alas, it didn’t help my mood much. My mind was filled with thoughts on how much people change and drift apart from each other, and I started yearning for the days when my dad didn’t flip out and shout as much as he does now, when my sister was still living with us, when my sister and I actually got along, and when seeing family felt nice as opposed to some kind of chore. And it’s nothing new; I’d thought about this a lot over the years and accepted that we’re all just different people. But sometimes I still wish for things to be different, and it frustrates me.

When we got home, I could tell that I was getting into one of my overly negative, over thinking, shitty moods. I just went through one a couple of weeks ago, and I really didn’t want to fall back into another one so soon, so I called a friend and tried to explain my night and feelings on it without trying to sound like I was about to crack. So we talked for an hour, mostly about how people drift apart and attempts to get close again (which that dinner kind of seemed like). And even though it’s an unfortunate, inevitable part of life, it made me feel better getting it off my chest.

Like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a new concept for me or anything. There have been many people that came and went, some more gracefully than others. It’s sad when people drift apart, but at least it’s better than relationships that end with one person hurting another. When people drift, at least they’re still on good terms. Meetings may be awkward, and they may never reach a level that you’d like them to, but at least there’s no hate. Well, usually.

And sometimes people need to drift from each other. It’s sad, but it’s true. Sometimes you think you’re close with someone, and maybe you were, but tastes and needs change. Sometimes two people need to drift a little and reexamine who they are. And that in and of itself is very healthy. You need to be comfortable knowing who you are and what you need in order to have good relationships. It’s just that sometimes, it turns out old friends and family can’t fulfill those needs.

It’s sad, but well… sometimes it just happens. And it’s important to be able to know how to make yourself happy so you don’t crave relationships that don’t work anymore.

How Do You Know When You’re Done With a Short Story?

Last summer one of my friends E-mailed a list of contests Glimmer Train has every month for short stories. This is pretty convenient; it helps keep me focused on writing and gives regular contests that provide opportunities for both publication and payment. I told myself I would write one short story a month and send it in.

Here I am, half a year later, and I think I only sent something in once. And now my college’s literary magazine is taking submissions for this year’s publication, and I don’t think I have anything I’d like to submit.

So what’s up? It’s true I’ve had some big obstacles get in the way of my writing this past year, but really? I haven’t produced one short story I’m actually proud of? What happened?

Well to be fair, I’ve finished a ton of drafts. I’ve written short stories, I’ve rewritten them, I’ve rewritten those, but honestly, I think I’m at a bit of a loss. I’m having trouble determining when I’m done writing a story.

I realized this a while ago, actually. Without writing workshops, I feel less pressured to have drafts done on time and to move on to other pieces. At first this was nice; I felt like I could finally pour my concentration into one piece at a time and make better stories.

However, without the workshops and other people looking over my work, my drafts are just left with me and my constant barrage of harsh criticism. As a result, I’ve locked myself into this cycle of never ending drafts. And I tell myself not to worry about it, to put one story aside and start working on a new one because I can always just return to a previous one. And the cycle continues, and now I have a bunch of short stories “in progress” that I’m just not finishing.

And at the end of every month, I convince myself that whatever I’m working on isn’t good enough, and I don’t send a submission out, and I keep saying next month. This past month was the most disappointing. I finally took one story I’d been working on since October, rewrote the whole damn thing, loving how different and better it felt than any of the previous drafts. It finally felt right. And then I read the whole thing over and just wasn’t crazy about it. Even though I said I would have it finished on January 31, even though I said this was going to be the last draft, even though I said it was going to be done whether I liked it or not and take it off my desktop… I told myself next month.

How do you know when you’re done, then? All my professors have said “when it feels right.” Which is great and true, but what if you keep working on it and it never feels right? That’s something I never asked. Well, maybe they’re not right, then. I hate to say that, I hate saying that something you’ve worked so long on was all for nothing, but if a story’s not working after several revisions then it just might not work.

The thing about short stories is, as much as I love them, and as much as I believe in their potential to be as good as longer pieces, they’re still short stories. I don’t think they’re meant to be mulled over for months at a time. I think they’re excellent practice for condensing words and ideas so that our future novels don’t turn into 600 page stories that only look deep on the outside.

So maybe that’s one way to look at this question. Think of them as practice. Even if a short story doesn’t work out, at least you have the experience of writing one and learning what wasn’t working, and both of these will help in your next one.

Okay, so now they’re doubling as exercises. How long should they last?

I think this depends on your writing experience and time available to work on them. Personally, I’m going to still try for one short story a month, but now I’m going to give myself another deadline of one finished draft a week. I’m hoping this will help me continue focusing on one story at a time while simultaneously leading up to a finished piece.

What if it still doesn’t feel right, but it feels like it still has potential?

Keep going for it! If you think you’re making actual progress, keep it up! Readjust your deadlines and see where you end up. And if it doesn’t feel right but you still want to work on it, keep it in a separate folder on your computer. Start a new short story, and after you finish that one, go back and see if some time away from it has helped.

Try not to get discouraged, though. And try not to juggle too many stories at once. Just keep at it. Eventually you’ll get to that point where you know when your final draft feels right. Happy writing! 🙂