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
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