Depending from where you’re coming from the problem (or attraction) of Chuck Palahniuk is that all his novels are about the same things and cover all the exact same themes over and over again. Sure, every author covers similar themes and ideas throughout their career due to the fact that they’re one singular person with a limited set of ideals and experiences that constantly get fed into their work. Where Palahniuk differs for me is that his repeated themes of parental issues, sexuality, addiction, shock value and satire of popular culture among others always resonate in the same way in each novel, generally consuming a main character and their troubles to deal with the outside world.
His first four novels from Fight Club to Survivor to Invisible Monsters to Choke literally just feels like he remade Fight Club three times over following the same idea of a troubled protagonist dealing with whatever sort of addiction, coupled with their messed up state of mind and daddy and mommy issues. Don’t get me wrong, Fight Club was a really good book and I enjoyed the small twists Choke did, but the rest of the novels felt like Palanhiuk just swapped out a few characters and a new locale and created a “new” book.
After those first four novels is where Palahniuk started to get real inventive and thus started his whole gimmick of each novel having some kind of weird and wacky narrative device to tell the story, whether it was a framing of interwoven short stories or an oral biography or a multi-POV perspective or a novel in broken english or whatever, Palahniuk had unlimited schtick it seemed to write a novel in. In one aspect I really loved this, because in the face of his first four books he now wasn’t keen to repeat the same boring narrative structure, but instead challenged himself and the reader to consume this media through whatever gimmick he had that intended to serve the material the best, whether it worked or not. I enjoyed the And Then There Were None aspect of Haunted, even if he didn’t quite pull it off in the end and thought the idea to do Pygmy in the broken English perspective of an exchange student was a perfect way to skewer culture and society. Others like Tell-All and Rant didn’t work too well, with a narration and oral history gimmick, didn’t work well because they weren’t interesting or engaging on either level of content or through any sort of device.
On the other hand of things the Palahniuk devices can become tiring because often its just a flashy cover for the same things we’ve been reading about all these years. It’s like a big budget Hollywood moving using amazing CGI and effects to distract you how bad the actual narrative of the film is at its core. That’s an extreme example, and I don’t feel like Palahniuk’s novels are bad, if anything very average, it’s just that often these narrative devices just seem like they become a gimmick just to be a gimmick and have no place rather than just for being a new and crazy way for Palahniuk to put out a new novel. Like I mentioned before, some work good, while others don’t amount to much at all. The one thing I really took away from reading his entire bibliography is that he has not one great or singular classic I could really take away. I guess you could argue for Fight Club (even though I like Lullaby the best), but there isn’t really a seminal piece of his work that rises above the others and thus it all just muddles into the same.
I think that’s the problem in the end, is that writing about all these same or similar things you’re going to get some good and bad novels, but nothing ever rises above that, and nothing a gimmick narrative device could ever improve. Another thing that Palahniuk is perhaps most widely known or thought of in the mainstream culture or with people who are only slightly familiar with him is his dark and explicit deceptions of sexuality and gruesome scenes. Again fitting in with what I’ve said before, his repetition of what he thinks is “shocking” behaviour that he thinks will get the reader all riled up just becomes predictable and old-hat after you read it for the tenth time, and just becomes a lame gimmick among many that falls flat and doesn’t achieve its desired effect.
Aside from my negative tone of the majority of the article, I really don’t dislike Palahniuk and actually think he’s a pretty good writer. His first two short story collections are pretty good (and I generally don’t really like short stories all that much) and demonstrated how good of a write he is when he’s not always depend on writing inside of a gimmick or in certain narrative thematic parameters. And I guess what it all comes down to is unevenness in his bibliography where I liked a bunch of his novels (Fight Club, Choke, Lullaby, Doomed), but hated many of the same (Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Tell-All) and was never left with that one definitive Palahniuk novel that rose above the rest.