Tuesday, September 28, 2004

"That dog was fucking nuts."

When life gets ya down, go do something interesting. If that sounds like too much work, then just just go hang around someone who can't help but be interesting. For example, a guy who goes around reading (aloud) a short story so vividly sickening that it has caused no fewer than 64 people to pass out simply by listening to it. Number 64 was sitting a few rows in front of me. And he didn't even make it to the really bad part.

Chuck Pahlaniuk did a reading of his short story Guts at the Chicago Public Library tonight, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go. There were between six and seven hundred people there, some four hundred who were smart enough to come early and get seats in the auditorium and a few hundred more (*ahem*) who were relegated to overflow rooms where we watched a simulcast of what was going on in the auditorium. (Silver lining: got a much better look at Chuck--I'm not going to type his last name, it's too damn long--trying to drink, twice, from a bottle whose cap he'd forgotten to remove.) We didn't get to ask questions, but as stated above, the reading didn't lose anything by not taking place in the same room. Refer to wuss in above paragraph who fainted. He was actually the only one to do so at this reading, from what I was able to gather.

Chuck prefaced his reading with a couple of anecdotes: he said how his writing was frequently described as dark, and which he claimed was simply the result of being observant. He doesn't make this shit up (a point he perhaps wants to drive home with his most recent publication of Stranger than Fiction). He proceeded to relate a couple of anecdotes about people using cell phones: in one he overhears a guy at Penn Station in New York telling his wife how he was robbed the night before and is asking if they know anyone in the city who can lend him $40 to take the train back to Scarsdale; the man is offered the money he needs by an old lady sitting nearby, and then when Chuck comes back a half hour later, the guy is still there, having the same conversation in front of a whole new group of people. It's little stories like that that tie together and eventually when he has more cell phone stories maybe he'll actually be able to make something out of it. He said that every time he got on a plane, he prayed to God for it not to crash, because he was the only one on this earth who knew these three really funny masturbation stories.

'Funny' may be a stretch, but those stories are the substance of Guts. They earned him 31 written complaints at the Barnes and Noble in Austin where he did a reading on Friday. (Apparently that's some kind of record.) I'm not going to ruin it for you here, since the telling is really what makes it so wrenching, but seriously, go find the March issue of Playboy or buy Haunting when it's published in June. I will forget everything about this reading (which is why I'm writing it down now) except for that short story (from which the title of this post is quoted, by the way... it's too horribly funny not to write down. And no, the dog was not involved in any masturbation. Get your mind out of the gutter, these stories are much worse than that.)

After the reading came the Q&A. Very well-run: there were a few people who had gotten passwords (I think they were participants in a writing workshop) to lead off the questioning, and to everyone who asked a question, Chuck gave a fake severed limb. When he ran out of limbs, question time was over, but we learned a lot before that happened. Like that all of his books except for Lullabye have been optioned and are on their way to becoming movies. Choke will be made by the same people who did Requiem for a Dream. Jessica Beal will star in Invisible Monsters. Survivor was dropped by Fox after 9/11 but is apparently on the verge of being picked up by some WB hotshots. Chuck's favorite reading material is short stories, and favorite authors are Amy Hemple and Bret Ellis, among others (those were the ones I remembered ten minutes after he went through the list). Favorite movies fall into two categories: dark (surprise surprise) 70's stuff that I'd never heard of and then movies like Dude Where's My Car, A Night at the Roxbury and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion; he likes the latter category because all this drama is happening to and around these characters and they're completely oblivious to it.

Chuck offered a lot of other little tidbits as well. Like the concept of 'heart authority': either you get people to listen to you because you're wise or because you were able to break their heart. He believes in writing for your own enjoyment because that's the only way it'll ever be honest. It should never be tempered by fear, like being afraid that others won't like it or that your mom will read it or that you'll have to stand up in public and read it aloud.

Chuck was completely honest in all of his answers (he related one horrible story about a public appearance he did in San Diego that almost turned him off it entirely), had a great sense of humor and seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly. And he was so nice. You wouldn't expect the author of something like Fight Club or Lullabye to be so nice. I mean, he brought presents for his audience. He promised that he'd be the last to leave the auditorium. He posed for pictures with fans--not just sitting there and smiling into the camera, but actually taking part in poses they asked of him, like one where he pretended to play tug-of-war over a girl with her boyfriend. He signed everything people brought him: multiple copies of books, Fight Club dvd covers, bookmarks, posters. And the thing that impressed me most of all was that he didn't just do this in the beginning; he stayed nice the entire time. He signed my new copy of Choke and added the message "A fellow pervert!!" and was perfectly happy to sign my ticket, too (I was number 563 in the signing line).

I guess I'm just that much more impressed by people who go out of their way to be nice when their position is such that the same old thing will still exceed our expectations. It's a sad comment on the world, but we have no shortage of those. There aren't too many like Chuck Pahlaniuk. He's a great guy, if I've ever met one.

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